Ocean City Pays $249,000 to Settle Racial Discrimination Suits
The payments end three lawsuits filed by Sanitation Department employees.
The City of Ocean City paid three former employees $83,000 apiece to settle racial-discrimination lawsuits against the city and a Sanitation Department supervisor.
The confidential settlement agreements include no admission of guilt or wrongdoing on the city's part.
"This agreement is entered into solely to avoid the continued expense and distraction of litigation and disputes involving personnel issues," each of the three agreements states.
The $249,000 settlements (and the associated legal fees) are the latest costs to be borne by Ocean City taxpayers. The city paid a former Ocean City Beach Patrol lifeguard $50,000 to settle an age-discrimination lawsuit and an Ocean City Fire Department captain more than $222,000 in back pay and costs to settle a lawsuit for wrongful suspensions. The city faces a number of other ongoing lawsuits involving city employees, including one filed by a West Atlantic Boulevard resident after a confrontation with an Ocean City police officer.
While Ocean City is covered in these types of lawsuits by the Atlantic County Joint Insurance Fund, taxpayers will bear the brunt of the increased premiums that occur when big payouts are made.
The three lawsuits are similar and allege a hostile environment created by a Sanitation Department supervisor, Keith Washington, whose race is not described in the lawsuits (though he is reportedly black). The plaintiffs are minority seasonal workers who claim they did not receive the same job assignments or raises as white employees.
The case was settled before the allegations could be challenged in a civil trial. The settlement agreement includes a section that requires the plaintiffs to keep the details and amount of the settlement confidential.
Samuel D. Beck Lawsuit
In a civil complaint filed against the city and the supervisor in November 2009, Samuel D. Beck describes himself as "dark-skinned and of Hispanic origin." The Atlantic City resident was hired as a seasonal laborer in April 2009.
The suit alleges that Washington told him immediately after he began work: "Your skin is a shade too dark for me. I don't like black people, and you will have no advantage being black."
The suit claims that the anti-black comments continued "on virtually every day of his employment."
On more than one occasion, the supervisor referred to the mostly-minority Sanitation Department employees as "dancing monkeys," according to the lawsuit allegations.
"During the course of the plaintiff's employment, Caucasian employees were assigned easier jobs," the lawsuit alleges. "The plaintiff received no raises during the course of the summer, although Caucasian employees did receive raises."
The suit claims three separate complaints to the Ocean City Department of Human Resources resulted in no action taken against the supervisor.
Jermaine Elliott Lawsuit
In a civil complaint filed in August 2010, Jermaine Elliott makes similar claims of listening to daily racist comments from the same Sanitation Department supervisor.
Elliott, an Atlantic City resident, is "dark-skinned and of African-American origin," according to the lawsuit. He was hired as a seasonal laborer in July 2009.
"I don't like black guys," the lawsuit claims the supervisor said. "There's nothing nobody can do to make me like them. You're black — to me you're ignorant."
Elliott claims the supervisor made comments about "the odor of other black employees," about his preference to be around white people and about his contempt for black people.
Like Beck, Elliott alleges that white people were treated differently and that the city did nothing to correct a hostile work environment.
Andrew Karpuk Lawsuit
Andrew Karpuk, an Ocean City resident, was the first of the three Sanitation Department workers to sue. He filed his complaint in October 2009, a month after he was "forced to leave his job" in September 2009.
Like Beck, Karpuk is "dark-skinned and of Hispanic origin," according to his lawsuit.
Karpuk's complaint includes similar allegations of racist comments by the supervisor, preferential treatment for white employees and a lack of responsiveness from the city.
Because lawsuit settlements require confidentiality, because privacy laws prevent the city from discussing personnel matters and because the case never went to trial, the city and the supervisor cannot respond to the allegations. Washington could not be reached for comment.
None of the three seasonal Sanitation Department workers remained employed by Ocean City beyond 2009, according to the lawsuits.
The three lawsuits were filed by the same lawyer, Mary J. Maudsley, of April and Maudsley in Marmora. The three plaintiffs were later represented by Vineland lawyer Richard Pescatore.
In general comments earlier this year about lawsuits against the city, City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said the city does not always have the luxury of defending a case it thinks it can win. Because public money is at stake, the city has to consider if a victory at trial could become more costly than a settlement — or if a trial victory could lead to an even costlier appeal. (Conversely, she said, the city must consider the risk of setting a precedent by not going to trial.)
City Council met in executive session Feb. 9 to discuss the lawsuits and likely consented then to the settlements.