Former Princeton Fire Official William Drake has settled his lawsuit against the Municipality of Princeton for $145,000.
Princeton Council approved the out-of-court settlement, which stems from a 2016 lawsuit filed against the town, at its June 24 meeting. The town’s insurance carrier will make the payment.
The resolution approved by Princeton Council to settle the lawsuit states that “Princeton has not and does not make any admission of liability, but rather has decided that a negotiated settlement of these claims serves the public’s interest” by avoiding the ongoing costs of litigation.
Drake had worked for the former Princeton Borough as its Fire Official from 1990 to 2013, when the former Princeton Borough and the former Princeton Township consolidated to form the Municipality of Princeton. Drake continued to serve as the Fire Official for the new town until he was fired in 2016.
Drake sued the town in Mercer County Superior Court to reverse his firing, to be reinstated as the town’s Fire Official and to receive back pay, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in November 2016.
Drake also sought damages and attorney’s fees “for discrimination suffered by (Drake), who was discharged and otherwise discriminated against by the Defendants in retaliation for complaining and/or threatening to complain of illegal conduct and for wrongful discharge,” the lawsuit said.
“A pervasive environment of discrimination exists within the Defendant municipal entity, favoring those employees who are silent in the face of unethical and illegal conduct,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit names Princeton, Mayor Liz Lempert, former Princeton Council members Jo Butler and Lance Liverman, Administrator Marc Dashield and Fire Official Robert Gregory as the defendants.
Drake had received highly satisfactory performance reviews during his tenure as the Princeton Borough Fire Official, but since the towns consolidated, the lawsuit claims that he had been subjected to a series of disciplinary actions that were unfounded and without merit – “in direct retaliation for (Drake’s) whistle-blowing activities.”
Drake was disciplined in 2014 for “alleged harassment of employees and alleged inability to work with staff in a professional and efficient manner.” It grew out of his actions as a supervisor, in which he routinely asked fire inspectors who reported to him about “their daily workday activities and their whereabouts,” the lawsuit said.
He was disciplined in 2015 for allegedly following a female employee to the Princeton Fire Department. He was leaning on her car when she came out of the firehouse, which she claimed to have found threatening, according to the lawsuit. Drake said in the lawsuit that he was not at the firehouse on that date and time.
The whistle-blower allegations stem from two back-to-back events – Truckfest and Communiversity – in April 2016. Two inspectors, who were assigned to ensure that food trucks and vendors complied with the New Jersey Uniform Fire Code, told Drake that they had observed violations but had done nothing to prevent them or report them, the lawsuit said.
Drake, who also attended Truckfest and Communiversity for the same reasons as the inspectors, told them that he would have no choice but to report their “blatant disregard of their duties as inspectors,” and prepared a memorandum to his own supervisor, according to the lawsuit.
A few days later, Drake met with Administrator Marc Dashield, Robert Gregory, who was his supervisor, the Employee Assistance Plan representative and the Deputy Administrator to discuss complaints made by the two inspectors regarding comments that Drake allegedly made during Truckfest.
Drake was suspended without pay for seven days, and then placed on administrative leave pending further investigation while no disciplinary charges were pending, the lawsuit said. Drake was subsequently dismissed from his job on May 25, 2016.
The alleged basis for Drake’s dismissal was “harassment and conduct unbecoming,” in violation of two sections of the Princeton Personnel Manual, according to the lawsuit.
“At the time of (Drake’s) termination, Defendants did not present (him) with any disciplinary charges, oral or written” with specificity, nor was he provided with notice of his termination and the reason for his dismissal, the lawsuit said.
Drake appealed his dismissal, and the Personnel Committee – Mayor Lempert and Council members Butler and Liverman – met to review the issue in August 2016. The committee reviewed the three incidents for which he was disciplined, as well as other alleged incidents of misconduct throughout his career.
According to the lawsuit, none of the employees who made those complaints testified before the Personnel Committee. One month later, in September 2016, the committee upheld Drake’s dismissal and denied his request for reinstatement and back pay.
It was at that point that Drake filed the lawsuit.