Friday, January 4, 2019

Belleville paid out $235,000 to settle former court administrator's harassment and retaliation lawsuit.

On August 21, 2018, the Township of Belleville (Essex County) agreed to pay $235,000 and provide lifetime health benefits to settle a lawsuit filed by the Township's former court administrator who claimed that her co-workers created a sexually hostile workplace and that one of them "intentionally expose[d] her breast to [her] and excreted breast milk on her."

In her lawsuit, Cheryl Jeannette, a 30-year Township employee, said that Court Administrator Yara Acosta (Belleville's current court administrator is Yara Bossolt who may or may not be the same person) and Deputy Court Administrator Roberta Almeida "openly dated Belleville police officers" and "eagerly flaunted the intimate details of their sexual relationships" during work hours.  Jeannette claimed that Acosta's and Almeida's alleged relationships caused the Township to reward them with "preferential treatment, including selective enforcement of policies and promotions." 

After Almeida allegedly squirted her with breast milk in 2009, Jeannette claimed that Almeida was "hardly disciplined" for the act and was permitted "to serve her discipline at her convenience and, upon returning from her short suspension, transferred to the Code Enforcement Department and subsequently transferred back to the Municipal Court and promoted to Acting Deputy Court Administrator."  Similarly, Jeannette claimed that Acosta was afforded "special favoritism" when she was disciplined for allegedly conducting an improper background check on a co-worker.  According to the lawsuit, Acosta was "allowed . . . to serve this suspension with pay during her maternity leave in 2011, and promoted to Deputy Court Administrator upon her return."

Jeanette claimed that the Township administration retaliated against her for assisting in the investigations of Almeida and Acosta by reducing her salary.  When she complained about the "groundless salary reduction," then Township Manager Victor Canning told her that "if she were to continue voicing grievances to anyone, she would never be promoted to Municipal Court Administrator on a permanent basis."  Jeannette claimed that she kept her mouth shut and was later made the permanent Court Administrator.

Jeannette claimed that Almeida and Acosta refused to take direction from her, despite her supervisory role, and conducted a "campaign of hostility" toward her.  They called her a "'puta' which loosely translates to 'slut' or 'whore' in Spanish" and Almeida allegedly told Jeannette repeatedly that she was going to perform sexual acts on Jeanette's young son.

Jeannette claimed that on February 15, 2013, Almeida "filed a bogus complaint of racial discrimination and harassment against [her]" which resulted in then Township Manager Kevin M. Esposito filing formal charges against her after "he conducted a shoddy, one-sided, cursory investigation," according to the lawsuit.  Jeannette alleged that she was immediately suspended without pay.  Jeannette said that after a three-day hearing in February and March 2014, the Township's hearing officer sustained a charge of "conduct unbecoming" against her and recommended a 180-day suspension and a demotion.  The Township accepted the recommendation but increased her demotion to four levels below court administrator, according to the lawsuit.

Jeannette claimed that she resigned on September 2, 2014 "as she could not continue to work in the hostile environment created by Ms. Almeida and Ms. Acosta." 

The case is captioned Jeannette v. Township of Belleville, et al, Superior Court Docket No. ESX-L-1245-15 and Jeannette's attorney was Gina Mendola Langarzo of Chatham.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of lawsuit'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.  All that is known for sure is that Belleville or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Jeannette $235,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision 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 resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.