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NJ Civil Settlements

Willingboro Township confidentially paid $550,000 to settle racial discrimination lawsuit filed by two former employees.

On September 28, 2019, the Township of Willingboro (Burlington County) quietly paid $550,000 to two African-American laborers from its Parks and Recreation Department who claimed that a “large-sized Caucasian” co-worker screamed at them that “You people came to this country and f**ked it up! Trump’s gonna fix all that!” and told one of them that he “should go climb a tree.”

In their lawsuit, Wayne Brown, Jr. and Omar Wilson, who had both worked for the Township since about the beginning of 2016, said that the comments, which were made co-worker, Andrew Caruso, “were racially offensive and [that] it greatly upset them.” Wilson claimed that when he complained about Caruso to Parks and Recreation Supervisor Donald Thomas, Thomas told him that he “lacked the authority” to discipline Caruso.

Caruso also accused Wilson, Browne and another worker of using a rock to break into his car and steal $5,000 in cash, according to the lawsuit. The pair alleged that Caruso’s accusation caused them to be interrogated at the Willingboro Police Department where officers ultimately concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated. Caruso then allegedly brought a large rock into the breakroom, left it on the table and wrote “Trust No One” on the breakroom whiteboard. This action, Browne and Wilson said, was Caruso’s further attempt to provoke them. They claimed that Caruso kept a steak knife and a hammer in plain view which were intended to intimidate them.

Wilson and Browne said that they complained to both Thompson and Acting Township Manager Richard Brevogel and told them how fearful they were of Caruso. They said that after they pressed their verbal complaints, Willingboro Personnel Officer Jesse King finally asked them to fill out official complaint forms against Caruso. The complaint filings resulted in the pair meeting with Thompson, Brevogel and Parks and Recreation Director Jill Cyrus. In response to Browne’s and Wilson’s complaints about Caruso, Brevogel reportedly told them “I’m surprised you didn’t deck him.” Brevogel then allegedly told the pair that Caruso would simply deny the allegations and that “he could beat a lie detector test.”

In their lawsuit, Browne and Wilson said that they were not aware of any remedial action taken against Caruso. Instead, they claimed that they were transferred to Public Works while Caruso was allowed to remain in Parks and Recreation.

On March 24, 2017, Caruso allegedly “violently kicked Wilson in the leg” which reportedly resulted in the police filing assault and bias charges against him. Willingboro suspended Caruso with full pay, according to the lawsuit. Caruso’s actions caused both men to take a leave of absence and they were allegedly mocked by their co-workers when the returned to work.

The lawsuit recites several other examples of alleged discrimination and hostility. Readers who are interested in those allegations should read the lawsuit at the link below.

The case is captioned as Wayne Browne, Jr. and Omar Wilson v. Township of Willingboro, Superior Court Docket No. BUR-L-2523-17. The pair’s attorney was Stephan T. Mashel of Morganville. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

Under the settlement, Browne and Wilson will each receive $275,000. They also agreed to resign in good standing from their positions and not seek reemployment with Willingboro Township.

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.

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 Caruso or any of the other defendants. All that is known for sure is that Willingboro or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Browne and Wilson $275,000 each than take the matters 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