On May 10, 2012, the Lakewood Board of Education (Ocean County) entered into two separate settlement agreements that resolved a federal lawsuit that was jointly brought by Board employees Dean Richburg and Tammy Mitchell.

In the suit, Richburg claimed that he moved to New Jersey from Maryland in March 2010 to work as the Lakewood school board’s Director of Counseling.  Richburg, an African-American, claimed that he, unlike other directors, had an office at the high school instead of at the school district’s main office.  He alleged that the office he was assigned to was more of a storage facility that he was forced to enter through the offices of other employees.  Richburg alleged that this was discriminatory because other employees with an title lower than his had their own private offices.  He particularly claimed that high school principal Tina Yulie would invade his privacy by entering his office during staff meetings.

When he complained about Yulie to Superintendent Lydia Silva, Richburg claimed that Yulie excluded him from critical planning meetings.  When he spoke out about the treatment to which he was allegedly subjected, he claimed that “Lakewood orchestrated a false accusation of unprofessional conduct.”  Specifically, Richburg alleged that he was falsely accused by Vice Principal Todd Pazilla of making “homosexual advances towards him.” 

He further claimed that the school board, at a subsequent meeting, required him to submit to an evaluation by psychiatrist David J. Gallina who concluded that Richburg was unfit for employment because he suffered from “adjustment disorder and occupational stress”.  Based on Gallina’s report, the Board reportedly fired Richburg after he refused the Board’s request to resign.

Special Education teacher Tammy Mitchell, the other plaintiff in the lawsuit, alleged that she was repeatedly rebuffed when she applied for a promotion to assistant principal.  Mitchell attributed these rejections to her being a female, African American. Mitchell also claimed that school board attorney Michael I. Inzelbuch, Esq. “continually blocked” her promotion efforts because she had sued him for legal malpractice for allegedly failing “to timely file” a federal claim that she had against a federal prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey. 

In settlement of Richburg’s claims, the Board agreed to pay him “the costs of the lawsuit,” with no further specification of the amount of those costs, together with $5,340 for his unused vacation days.  To settle Mitchell’s claims, the Board agreed to pay her $225,000 and to place her on “a paid administrative leave through the end of her annual employment contract for the 2011-2012 school year” together with unused vacation time.

The case is captioned Richburg and Mitchell v. Lakewood Board of Education, et al, Federal Case No. 3:11-cv-00774 and the plaintiffs’ attorney was Michael A. Nelson of Freehold.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreements both contain a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement terms, or even the settlement’s or the lawsuit’s existence, to anyone.  Mitchell’s agreement characterizes the settlement as “a private, unpublished settlement” and calls for her to pay $30,000 in damages to the Board if she discloses its existence.  Fortunately, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public’s right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of the plaintiffs’ allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the payments do not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the Lakewood school board or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Lakewood or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the plaintiffs approximately a quarter million dollars than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]