Alan Schorr’s Case of The Week ending August 10, 2012

J.G. v. Camden, 10-cv-1047-JEI-KMW (D.N.J. 2012) (final settlement approved August 7, 2012)

Since the $500,000 settlement of this case and details of the attorney’s fees made the headlines on the front page of the Courier-Post this week, I guess it is not out of line to choose my own case as the Case of the Week. This is the second iteration of this case, which began as a CEPA case and ended as a Civil Rights and LAD case.

Jose Rivera was a fifth grade bilingual teacher at the Sumner Elementary School in Camden. His class of Hispanic children was admittedly unruly, but he alleged that the African American Vice Principal, Theresa Brown, was targeting the Hispanic classes. Brown erroneously believed that Rivera was spearheading discrimination complaints her. One day in February 2008, while Rivera was out sick, Brown assigned his entire class of 16 children to a two week lunch detention because one of the children had allegedly spilled some water on the floor. She allegedly made the children sit on the dirty floor of gymnasium and eat their lunch off the floor, without trays, but on a paper liner, while the other non-Hispanic children sat at tables with trays and mocked and teased the punished children. The Hispanic children were also not permitted to have milk. Rivera alleged that he was unaware of the punishment because teachers drop the children off for lunch and then go to the teacher’s lunch room. Furthermore, he alleged that Brown threatened the children with additional punishment if they told anyone.

After about two weeks, one of the parents came to school to complain, but the principal allegedly refused to speak to the parent, so the principal’s secretary brought the parent to Mr. Rivera. Mr. Rivera spoke to the children who explained what was going on. Rivera alleged that since the Principal and Vice Principal knew about the punishment, and fearing retaliation if he went over the principal’s head, Rivera instructed the children to go home and tell their parents to call the Board of Education to complain. The next day all hell broke loose at the Board of Education as the parents converged on the school and the Board. A Spanish television station showed up, and the newspapers had the story on the front page for a week. The Camden Board of Education took decisive action, terminating Mr. Rivera for conduct unbecoming a teacher because he had the children report the punishment rather than reporting it himself to the Principal. (The Principal retired the next day. The Vice Principal is still working and ultimately received no discipline.)

Rivera’s termination was seen by the Hispanic community as another slap in the face, and for a week there was picketing and demonstrations. Rivera sued in State Court under CEPA, LAD retaliation, and State and Federal Civil Rights statutes. The matter was removed to Federal Court. The Rivera case spawned an important published decision because Camden moved to dismiss the CEPA claim on the basis that Rivera was not a whistleblower since he had directed the children to report the discriminatory conduct rather than reporting it himself. Judge Irenas, in a published opinion, explained that Rivera was a whistleblower under CEPA because by instructing the children to complain he was opposing such behavior and refusing to participate, thereby satisfying the whistleblowing requirement of CEPA. Rivera v. Camden Bd. Of Educ., 634 F.Supp.2d 486 (D.N.J. 2009). Shortly thereafter, Rivera settled his case for $75,000.00. The comparatively low settlement resulted from the fact that Rivera was paid by Camden through the end of the year and immediately got a better job making more money.

After the Rivera case settled, six children, later joined by a seventh, filed suit in Federal Court alleging violations of LAD, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, and State and Federal Civil Rights. After three years of hard-fought litigation, the matter settled for a total of $520,000, and was finally approved by Judge Irenas this week with regard to the distribution of fees. The Court approved the negotiated attorney fee of $220,000. An additional $20,000 of attorney’s fee had been previously settled with Defendant Brown individually.

I have previously chided the Federal Courts in this column for being so willing to accept the Defendants’ factual assertions and granting summary judgment. In this particular case, the Federal Court had done a great job with the Rivera case, and I trusted the Federal Court to handle the second phase of the case. My trust was well-placed. Judge Williams and Judge Irenas showed patience and wisdom in moving this difficult case to conclusion. The case was complicated by the fact that none of the parents of the children spoke English, and, of course, the Plaintiffs were minors. The Federal Court did a great job on this case. I still recommend that State Court is the preferred venue for cases under the LAD and CEPA, but in the case I must give the Federal Court its due.

Plaintiff’s counsel: Alan H. Schorr, Alan H. Schorr & Associates, P.C.

Defendants’ counsel: Rivera v. Camden Board of Educ. – Gloria B. Cherry, Keith Harris – Braff, Harris & Sukoneck; J.G. v. Camden – Richard L. Goldstein – Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin for Camden; Allan E. Richardson, Richardson & Galella for Theresa Brown.

Judges: Rivera – Irenas and Donio; J.G. – Irenas and Williams.