Photo Credit. Atlantic County Civil Courthouse Atlantic City by LourdesCam Licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0. Changes made. Converted from TIF to JPEG

On May 16, 2023, the Egg Harbor Township Board of Education (Atlantic County, NJ) agreed to pay $175,000 to a former custodian who claimed that coworkers racially harassed him by placing a teddy bear with a noose around its neck in the breakroom.

In his lawsuit, Patrick Dawson, an African-American, said that he started his employment with the school district in 2015 as a part-time “floater” custodian with different supervisors in various schools up to November 2018. Until this time, he said that he had no complaints about his work performance across five different supervisors. He then became a full-time employee assigned to Slaybought School until August 2019 where he claimed to again have no complaints about his performance.

In August 2019, Dawson was transferred to the Joyce Miller School which was supervised by a man identified in the lawsuit only as Robert S. Dawson claimed that Robert S. harassed and “micro-managed” him and unfairly placed him on an indefinite period of probation. Dawson claimed that these acts were “a pattern and practice of harassment based upon [his] race – African American or ‘Black’.”

In mid-2020, during a meeting, a coworker named only as Bruce, allegedly made a racially derogatory statement about the COVID masks being in memory of George Floyd. Robert S. reportedly ignored the comment. The same coworker then allegedly “asked why blacks do not have to social distance when they congregate.” Dawson said that he demanded that unless Robert S. did “something about the pattern of harassment, he would elevate his complaint about the pattern of harassing behavior.” Robert S. reported the matter to Jason H., but Dawson claimed that no action was taken.

On March 15, 2021, Dawson said that he found a teddy bear with a noose around its neck in the breakroom and that he interpreted that to be meant to intimidate him. He said that he reported this to his new supervisor, Susan K, who informed the school principal and her superiors. However, he claimed, there was no immediate action to address that matter and that he and his coworkers weren’t separated until March 22, 2021. Dawson said that he went on unpaid leave that day due to the intense emotional distress caused by the hostile environment which extended until June 2, 2021 when he returned to work.

According to the settlement agreement, Dawson received $100,355.95 of the $175,000 settlement amount while his attorney received the remaining $74,644.05. The settlement agreement also stated that Dawson “will be considered resigned from employment” and that the school district would not “contest [Dawson’s] claim for unemployment benefits should a claim be filed.” The district’s response to an Open Public Records Act request shows that Dawson resigned effective May 17, 2023 at an annual salary of $44,546.

The case is captioned Patrick Dawson v. Egg Harbor School District, Docket No. ATL-L-3106-21 and Dawson’s original attorney was William A. Riback of Cherry Hill. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are in a combined PDF file on-line here.

None of Dawson’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 or school district’s supervisors or employees. All that is known for sure is that the Egg Harbor school board or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Dawson $175,000 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]