DNA, coffee shop harassment suit still brews

A Camden entrepreneur, whose coffee shop offered DNA tests as well as java, vowed Tuesday to fight a judge's ruling that he verbally agreed to settle a sexual harassment suit brought by six female employees.

The $75,000 agreement - including $15,000 to be shared by the former employees - had been contested by Ronald Ford Jr., the owner of City Coffee, who refused to sign the settlement document this summer.

"I refuse to be extorted," Ford said Tuesday, following an announcement of the settlement by the state Attorney General's Office Division on Civil Rights.

"I refuse to settle," he said. "That's why I never signed it."

The state filed a lawsuit against Ford in 2007, contending that he had sexually harassed six women who worked at his shop across from Camden's City Hall. In addition to creating a hostile work environment, the suit alleged that Ford fired one of the women in retaliation for reporting his conduct.

Ford made repeated sexual and obscene advances toward the women, often after luring or following them to areas where they couldn't be seen on the shop's surveillance camera, according to the suit.

He created such an intolerable work atmosphere, the complaint alleged, that numerous female employees quit to avoid his unwanted touching and sexual comments.

In the summer of 2010, a jury found Ford guilty of harassing only one of the women. A retrial was ordered after the prosecution learned of "improprieties" during the court proceedings, Deputy Attorney General James R. Michael said. A new trial was scheduled for June 6, 2011.

"On the eve of the trial . . . a verbal agreement was reached," Michael said Tuesday. A financial settlement was drafted in which Ford admitted to no wrongdoing.

But Ford refused to sign it.

"They had no witnesses," said Ford, who has said that all of the charges were false.

Superior Court Judge Robert G. Millenky, who was assigned to the case, was asked by the Attorney General's Office to rule on the validity of Ford's verbal settlement.

Millenky said at a hearing on Oct. 21 that it was binding and ordered the written agreement to be enforced, Michael said.

Under the settlement, Ford has 60 days to pay $15,000 to the state, which will distribute the money among the six women. He must provide employee training on the topics of workplace discrimination and harassment and implement formal policies against workplace discrimination.

The $60,000 balance of the settlement was suspended and will be dropped in three years if Ford complies with the other terms of the settlement.

Ford may appeal the judge's decision, Michael said.

Ford has leased the coffee shop to a new manager and is focusing on his other ventures, which include a business consulting service he runs from his office in the back of the store. He also is active in the Army Reserves.

City Coffee opened in 2002 to much celebration from local officials. Over the years, Ford added an unusual array of services to the menu.

In addition to coffee and muffins, the Camden native offered tax preparation and paternity testing.

For about $600, a coffee shop worker would run swabs inside the mouths of a mother, child and alleged father and ship them to a lab for DNA testing.

 


Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com or @InqCVargas on Twitter.