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Fairfield Township Informant NJ Civil Settlements

Cumberland County local school district paid out $70,000 to settle whistleblower lawsuit.

On September 29, 2019, the Fairfield Township (Cumberland County) Board of Education paid $70,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the district’s former interim superintendent/principal. The lawsuit claimed that district officials, due to the former interim superintendent/principal’s objections to their requests that he “get himself excused” from grand jury duty, retaliated against him by cutting his work schedule to two days per week, deducting $800 from his weekly paycheck and hiring another person as superintendent after he had already been offered the position.

In his lawsuit, Dr. James J. Ruffin, Jr., who was hired as an assistant principal in September 2015 and later promoted to interim superintendent/principal, claimed that on June 15, 2016, shortly after getting a summons requiring him to serve on a grand jury one day a week for eighteen weeks, he received a written offer to serve as the district’s superintendent/principal for a 3-year term. Although he accepted the offer, it reportedly did not take effect because a filing deadline wa missed. After realizing that the deadline was missed, the district offered him an interim contract, the lawsuit alleges.

In October 2016, about the same time the interim contract was signed, Ruffin alleged that he had “numerous conversations and disputes” with the school board president and business administrator about his jury duty obligation. According to the suit, both the president and business administrator told him that “they did not believe he was entitled to be paid . . . for his grand jury service” and told him to “get himself excused.” He claimed that during each such conversation, he told the pair that it was illegal for an employer to threaten or penalize an employee for obeying a jury summons.

(Note: New Jersey Statute 2B:20-17 states in part that “An employer shall not penalize an employee with respect to employment, or threaten or otherwise coerce an employee with respect to that employment, because the employee is required to attend court for jury service.”)

Ruffin alleged that even though he had been previously offered a three-year superintendent/principal contract, the school district began a search for a new person to fill that position and that Ruffin was told he “could apply to same.” He claimed that he was denied the position after he had applied and interviewed for it. According to the board’s April 13, 2017 meeting minutes, Dr. Michael Knox was hired as superintendent and according to the district’s website he still holds that position as of the date of this writing.

According to the district’s August 25, 2016 and November 17, 2016 meeting minutes, the board president was Michelle Kennedy and the business administrator was Janecia Smith during October 2016 when the jury duty disputes allegedly arose. As of the date of this article, the district’s website shows that Kennedy is still the board president, but that William Gerson now serves as business administrator.

As part of the settlement, Ruffin agreed to never again seek to be rehired by the Fairfield school district.

Ruffin earned $84,000 per year for serving as assistant principal from September 2, 2015 through November 30, 2015 and received the same salary, plus $100 per day, for his service as interim superintendent/principal from December 1, 2015 through April 13, 2017.

Ruffin listed on his resume that he had served as Director of Human Resources for the Pleasantville Public Schools from December 2008 to November 2009. According to a September 18, 2012 Press of Atlantic City article by Staff Writer Anjalee Khemlani, Ruffin had sued the Pleasantville school district after he had been “terminated for [alleged] insubordination.” According to the article, Ruffin settled his lawsuit against the Pleasantville district in September 2012 with Ruffin receiving $95,000 and a conversion of “his firing into a resignation in good standing.”

The resume also shows that Ruffin previously worked as the Fairfield district’s interim superintendent from March 2013 to May 2013.

The case is captioned James Ruffin v. Fairfield Township School District, Docket No. CUM-L-601-17 and Ruffin’s attorney was Arthur J. Murray of Marlton. Case documents are on-line here.

None of the the lawsuit’s 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 the Fairfield school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Ruffin $70,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision 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 resolve 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