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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lawyers win big in sexual harassment settlement

Litigation dragged on for nearly seven years.  It ended when the plaintiffs – the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Department – agreed to a $1.59 million settlement, reports Tom Haydon in The Star Ledger. 

Two female sheriff’s officers filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the county in 2006.  The paper trail led back to March 2002, when the officers say that the county personnel director failed to address their complaints. 

Admitting no wrongdoing, Middlesex Freeholders agreed to the settlement one day before the trial was set to begin in U.S. District Court in Newark.  County Freeholder Director Christopher Rafano said that the State’s discrimination laws “make it difficult, if not impossible, for the county to effectively defend itself.”  He said that Middlesex County will ask the Legislature to review discrimination laws and legal fee requirements.  Rafano said that the Legislature should also consider modifying the Tort Claims Act, which would provide immunity to public entities in discrimination cases.  Middlesex County will pay $837,500 in attorney’s fees under this settlement agreement; the plaintiffs will receive a total of $752,500.  This follows a $1 million settlement the county agreed to in order to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by five female sheriff’s officers last May.  It’s unclear whether the county will be able to recoup the money from its insurance carriers.   

There are several unfortunate situations here.  First, the number of female sheriff’s officers who have had sexual harassment lawsuits settled with the county in the past year: seven.  What is the reason behind the flood of litigation? There are two possible explanations: there is clearly a hostile work environment that the Sherriff’s department has chosen to ignore – in which case, it’s about time this situation is addressed in criminal court and internal changes are made so other officers aren’t made to suffer through similar situations.  The focus should be on protecting employees, not making lawyers rich.  The other explanation is also hard to digest.  If, as the Freeholder stated, it’s “difficult if not impossible” for the county to defend itself against allegations of sexual harassment, (and I’m not suggesting it occurred here) what is to stop employees from filing frivolous lawsuits against the County when they know a large settlement is likely?  The county maintained that in at least one instance, the employee was fired not in retaliation, but because she failed a qualification test with her service weapon.  We need to examine the systemic reasons behind this statement, and determine what protections the county – and taxpayers – have against frivolous lawsuits when they do emerge. 

Next, the obvious: the lawyers involved were disproportionate winners in what is an unfortunate situation.  The settlement itself is huge, and $837,500.00 is a lot of money to make on the backs of women who say they were “subjected to years of sexual propositions, innuendo, and lewd, offensive behavior.”  After dividing the award between them, the alleged victims will each have $376,250.00 in damages.  Nothing to sneeze at, but it’s less than half of the attorneys’ compensation. 

While this case is over, the issues it raises are far from settled. 

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