On July 10, 2017, Cumberland County agreed to pay $45,000 to a public works employee who claimed that he was sexually harassed by his supervisor.

In his lawsuit, John James, Jr. claimed that he worked as a truck driver and equipment operator without incident from his hiring in 2002 until Donald Olbrich was hired as Supervisor of the Public Works Department in October 2009.  James, a heterosexual, claimed that Olbrich “began making sexual overtures to [James] shortly after Olbrich was hired but the County.”

According to the lawsuit, Olbrich said, in front of other employees, that he wanted to use some of the grease that the employees were using and “slap that on [James’] ass.”  The lawsuit also alleged that Olbrich would stare at James’ buttocks which caused him to feel “rattled and dirty” and that Olbrich would, in reference to a hydraulic hose, wink at James and say “mine is bigger than that.”

James claimed that he complained about the harassment to Fran Smith, his union representative but that a subsequent investigation, conducted by County Director of Personnel Joseph Rossi “was less than thorough as it focused only on . . . the incident involving the comment about Olbrich wanting to grease James’ ass, and, only one witness was interviewed despite there being more than one witness to the incident.”

According to the lawsuit, Olbrich then retaliated against James by giving him unfavorable transfers to different Public Works yards around the County and excluding him from opportunities for promotion.

The lawsuit was the subject of articles in both the Daily Journal and NJ Advance Media soon after it was filed in early 2015.  The articles both quote County Solicitor Ted Baker as stating that he did his own investigation and “[didn’t] find any merit to this claim.”

The case is captioned James v. County of Cumberland, Docket No. CUM-L-70-15 and James’ attorney was Michelle J. Douglass of Somers Point.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of James’ allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Cumberland County or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay James $45,000 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]