|TRENTON – An Appellate panel has upheld the legal validity of a $75,000 sexual harassment case settlement reached by the Division on Civil Rights with a South Jersey restaurant owner, rejecting in the process the owner’s argument that the settlement is void because he never signed it.
In 2011, the Division negotiated a settlement with Ronald Ford, Jr., owner of City Coffee, a restaurant and coffee shop located in downtown Camden city. The $75,000 agreement was designed to resolve allegations that Ford had sexually harassed several female employees over a period of years.
Under terms of the settlement negotiated by his attorney, Ford was required to pay the State $15,000 and provide training to all of his employees on discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
As part of the agreement, another $60,000 of the settlement payout was suspended, and was to be vacated after three years unless Ford failed to live up to all terms, in which case he would be liable for the full amount. Ford made no admission of wrongdoing under the agreement.
In June 2011, the attorney representing Ford sent a letter to Superior Court Judge Robert Millenky indicating that a settlement had been reached, that the Division on Civil Rights was drafting a Consent Judgment memorializing the terms, and asking that the City Coffee case be marked “settled.” Ford was copied on the letter.
However, Ford subsequently refused to sign the Final Consent Judgment. The Division on Civil Rights then petitioned Judge Millenky to enforce the settlement, and the judge granted the Division’s request.
Ford subsequently challenged Millenky’s ruling before the Appellate Division and, on January 4, the Appellate panel upheld his enforcement of the agreement.
In its written opinion, the Appellate panel held that “it is clear from the record that Ford was involved in the settlement negotiations.”
“It is immaterial that Ford did not sign the Consent Judgment; he is bound as a matter of law by its terms …,” the panel added.
The settlement affirmed by the two-judge Appellate panel resolves a five-count complaint filed in Superior Court by the Division on Civil Rights in 2007. The complaint named both Ford and City Coffee, his restaurant and catering business located on Market Street in Camden.
The original Complaint alleged that a hostile work environment prevailed at City Coffee, with Ford engaged in a “pattern or practice” of subjecting six female employees to lewd comments, unwanted touching, invitations to pose for photographs in revealing clothing or nude, and requests for sexual favors.
The Complaint also accused Ford of terminating one of those employees after she reported his alleged harassment, first to other employees, then to Camden Police, and alleged that other employees had quit their jobs to avoid being harassed.
Deputy Attorney General James R. Michael handled the City Coffee matter on behalf of the Division on Civil Rights.