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NJ Civil Settlements

Pinelands Regional and Bass River Boards of Education paid out $200,000 to settle former phys ed teacher’s gender discrimination lawsuits.

On August 24, 2020, the Pinelands Regional School District and Bass River Township School District together paid $200,000 to a former substitute physical education teacher who claimed that she was twice passed over for permanent teaching positions. The teacher claimed that the man who served both districts as Supervisor of Athletics was predisposed to hire males rather than females and that the Supervisor caused her discomfort during a meeting by having a photo of her in a bikini on his computer screen and by asking her about her legs.

In her two complaints, Tara Rutter, who describes herself as “a 46-year female with an exceptionally strong background in athletics and education,” claimed that William Sundermann, Athletics Supervisor for both the Pinelands Regional and Bass River school districts, used his authority to twice deprive Rutter of permanent employment and instead steered those jobs to lesser qualified males.

Rutter said that from 2010 through 2015 she worked for Pinelands Regional as a full-time substitute teacher. After that, she was offered continuing 6-month contracts that extended her employment with the District until mid-2017 when her employment with both Districts terminated.

In her lawsuits, Rutter alleged that in July 2017 a permanent, part-time job was opening at the Bass River District but “was being surreptitiously obscured and not publicly advertised.” She applied for the position after being alerted to it by a co-worker. Rutter alleged that when she met with Bass River Interim Superintendent Detlef Kern on August 1, 2017, Kern told her that his “hands are tied” because “Sundermann already has a man in mind for the job.” A few days later, Kern told her that she didn’t get the job because of “experience,” the lawsuit claimed. Rutter said that the job went to Dan Mulligan, who was in his 20s and had “(1) less certifications; (2) less experience; (3) and who was objectively and overall less qualified than [her].”

Later in August 2017, a full-time position for a physical education teacher opened at Pinelands Regional. According to her lawsuits, Sundermann briefly interviewed her but was “dismissive and disinterested” during the interview and ultimately elected to hire Michael Keller, another man in his 20s who “had less than 6 months of substitute experience, and lacked anything near the qualifications of [Rutter].”

Both lawsuits claimed that Sundermann had “an intent to hire males in lieu of females.” Rutter alleged that when she met with Sundermann in his office in the Spring of 2017, he had a photo of her, presumably downloaded from Rutter’s social media, in a bikini on his computer screen. He allegedly asked “her about her legs.” She said that Sundermann then told her “point-blank . . . that he was looking to fill athletic positions with more males.”

After learning that Keller was publicly stating that he had received the full-time position, even before the interviews were finalized, Rutter said that she started “registering concerns of gender discrimination” with District officials. She claimed that when Pinelands Interim Superintendent Maryann Banks became aware of Rutter’s complaints, Banks, in an internal memo, pulled the job award off the school board’s agenda and asked for the job opening to be reposted.

Banks, according to the complaints, claimed in the memo that the hiring would be decided by an “established protocol for the interview process that is consistent and fair for all candidates.” Rutter claimed that Banks’ new process was “merely a charade” and that Sundermann “simply re-offered the position to Keller.”

Rutter also claimed that she had a 9-minute conversation with Denise Bartholomew, Sundermann’s secretary, that disclosed that Sundermann tried to get Bartholomew to tell Rutter “that [Sundermann] couldn’t hire a girl, [he] needed a guy.” Rutter alleged that Bartholomew felt uncomfortable delivering that message to Rutter because “it’s against the law.”

In the release, Rutter agreed to never again to seek re-employment in either school district. Pineland’s Regional agreed to provide a neutral reference to Rutter’s prospective employers.

The cases are captioned Tara Rutter v. Bass River Township School District, et al, Docket No. BUR-L-1085-19 and Tara Rutter v. Pinelands Regional School District, et al, Docket No. OCN-L-1287-19 and the plaintiff’s attorney in both cases was Ari R. Karpf of Bensalem, Pennsylvania. Case documents are on-line here.

None of the Rutter’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 two school boards or their insurers, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Rutter $200,000 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.

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to paff@pobox.com