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NJ Civil Settlements

Union school board confidentially paid out $132,500 to former teacher who posted on Facebook that homosexuality is a sin.

On June 5, 2018, the Union Township Board of Education (Union County) agreed to pay $132,500 to a tenured special education teacher who said that she was forced to resign after she posted on her personal Facebook page that homosexuality is a “perverted spirit” and “unnatural immoral behavior.” 

In her suit, Jenye Viki Knox, a tenured special education teacher, claimed that in September 2011 she publicly posted on Facebook about a billboard at Union High School that promoted “alternative lifestyles contrary to her private religious beliefs.”  She claimed that she responded to attacks to her posting by expressing her belief, based on biblical text, of “homosexuality as a sin and disobedience to God.”  Her lawsuit claimed that her posts were made during non-working hours without the use of school computers.

Knox, who had been employed by the Union school district as a special education teacher since 2000 and who also is an ordained minister, said that after school officials became aware of her posts on October 11, 2011 she “was removed from her classroom publicly without any advance notice in front of her students and in front of other teachers during school hours” and escorted to a small room where school board attorney James Damato, Assistant Superintendent Greg Tatum, and Union Township Education Association Vice President Jim Gross were waiting for her.  She claimed that the men “interrogated [her] about her Facebook posts and conversation” and that she was “pressured by these individuals to say that her religious beliefs were wrong.”  She claimed to have “felt extremely intimidated.”

Knox said that she was again removed from her classroom on October 13, 2011 and taken to a room where Superintendent Dr. Patrick Martin, Union High School Principal Ed Gibbons and Union Education Association President Ann Margaret Shannon were waiting for her.  At that meeting, Dr. Martin allegedly told Knox that she was suspended with pay because of her Facebook posts.  She claimed that she was not afforded any pre-suspension legal process and that after the meeting she was taken back to her classroom and told to gather her personal belongings and leave the property.

On October 18, 2011, the Board of Education held a public meeting at which Knox claimed her religious beliefs were criticized openly and publicly.  According to the lawsuit, Damato told Knox on December 23, 2011 that she was suspended without pay and that tenure charges were filed against her.  She claimed that school officials forced her to repay all the salary she received after her initial October 13, 2011 suspension.

On June 2012, Knox submitted her letter of resignation.  She claimed that the Board’s actions caused her health to deteriorate “to the point where she could not longer work from the stress of the intimidation, harassment, and emotional distress that resulted from the investigation and the [school officials’] actions.”

According to a news story, Knox agreed earlier this year to a three-year suspension of her teaching certificates.

The case is captioned Knox v. Union Township Board of Education, et al, Federal Case No. 2:13-cv-0587 and Knox’s attorney was Demetrios K. Stratis of Fair Lawn. Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement prescribed that the $132,500 was to be apportioned as follows: $24,500 for Knox’s back wages, $63,833.33 for Knox’s claims of emotional distress and $44,166.67 for Knox’s attorney’s fees and costs.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement’s terms to others, including the media.  Fortunately, however, 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 Knox’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. All that is known for sure is that the Union school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Knox $132,500 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.

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project