Judge: Lawsuit settled, despite gay litigant's protest

Judge: Lawsuit settled, despite gay litigant's protest

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A federal judge last week ruled that an antibias lawsuit filed by Thomas Vandergrift has been settled, despite the plaintiff’s protests that he never signed a settlement agreement.

Vandergrift, a South Philadelphia gay man, filed suit against Pennsauken School District in 2012, after district officials reported him to New Jersey authorities as a suspected child molester. The reports subsequently were determined to be unfounded.

Vandergrift claimed district officials violated his civil rights and retaliated against him after he advocated for a proper education for his autistic nephew. He requested a federal jury trial in Camden.

But on Dec. 22, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider ruled the case was settled orally during a court proceeding in October. Vandergrift didn’t attend the proceeding, but was connected via an overseas phone call.

In court papers, Vandergrift argued he couldn’t hear the proceeding clearly due to a faulty phone connection. He also cited other reasons to dispute that a settlement was finalized, including the lack of a signed agreement.

But Schneider said a valid settlement agreement between the parties didn’t require Vandergrift’s signature.

“The settlement was not contingent on a written agreement even though it is true the parties contemplated a written agreement would be signed,” Schneider opined. “If [Vandergrift] or his attorney wanted the settlement to be contingent on a signed release, they should have said so.”

According to a settlement agreement that’s included in Schneider’s ruling, $215,000 will be paid to Vandergrift due to emotional distress he sustained. Medicaid must be notified about the payment and applicable taxes and legal fees also must be satisfied.

The judge also said Vandergrift appears to have “buyer’s remorse” about the $215,000 payment.

“What occurred here is a classic case of ‘buyer’s remorse.’ It is evident [Vandergrift] has second thoughts about the settlement amount he agreed to accept on October 19. Unfortunately for [Vandergrift], however, he is bound by his October 19 agreement. [He] cannot turn away from an agreed-upon settlement,” Schneider wrote.

Neither side had a comment for this story. In court papers, Pennsauken School District officials denied any wrongdoing in the matter.

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