Montclair, NJ – Juliet Lee, the former Montclair Township deputy clerk, has filed a
complaint against the Township of Montclair and Town Manager Timothy Stafford, citing gender and age discrimination as well as a hostile work environment. Lee is represented by Roosevelt N. Nesmith, the same attorney for Padmaja Rao, Montclair’s Chief Financial Officer. The complaint mentions incidences where the town manager allegedly verbally abused Lee in front of employees from different township departments as well as the deputy town manager and township attorney.
Lee became Deputy Clerk in 2013 and remained in that position until her retirement, on November 1, 2020. Lee was 64 years old at the time of her retirement.
In her complaint, Lee alleges that Stafford subjected her to verbal abuse, humiliation and harassment during her tenure as Deputy Clerk.
“Stafford’s behavior created a hostile work environment which affected Lee’s ability to perform her job and adversely impacted her health. Stafford’s conduct was so outrageous and coercive that it was intolerable for Lee and forced her to retire early from employment with Montclair,” the complaint states.
Stafford was allegedly frequently abusive toward Lee and other female employees, but “his belligerent behavior toward Lee increased” when town clerk Linda Wanat was absent and Lee was responsible for the duties of Municipal Clerk.
Lee describes an instance where Stafford called and ordered Lee to come to his office.
According to the complaint, “when she entered the office conference room there were approximately ten Montclair employees from several departments there, including the deputy town manager and town attorney. Stafford began to verbally abuse Lee in front of the other employees. She was so mortified she could hardly focus on what he said, but he seemed to be humiliating her for issuing the license without coming to him for approval. Stafford sent his secretary to retrieve a trash can from Lee’s office, bring it to his office and ordered Lee to search through the trash can and retrieve copies of papers in front of the room. Lee was traumatized by Stafford’s behavior toward her. None of the Montclair officials present intervened to challenge Stafford’s verbal abuse and humiliation of Lee.”
The complaint states that Lee witnessed Stafford allegedly verbally abusing other female employees.
“On one occasion Stafford called Lee and a female colleague to his office. He proceeded to scream at the other woman. After he finished screaming, Lee and the other female employee were dismissed from his office. There was no reason for Lee’s presence in his office other than to also be subjected to his verbal abuse toward the other female employee,” the complaint states.
Wanat retired in or about April 2019. According to the complaint, Lee assumed the responsibilities of Municipal Clerk by operation of law. Lee was effectively the Municipal Clerk as Montclair did not fill the Municipal Clerk position for 18 months. During this time, Lee was responsible for all the work of the Municipal Clerk and the Deputy Clerk. The responsibilities of the Municipal Clerk required, among other things, her presence at Council meetings and the duties attendant with that role, and for her to discharge responsibilities outside the office. She met those responsibilities while also doing the work of the Deputy Clerk.
The complaint states that Lee applied to be appointed Municipal Clerk upon Wanat’s retirement. After 17 years in positions of increasing responsibility in the Municipal Clerk’s Office, she was fully prepared to become Municipal Clerk upon Wanat’s retirement and would have been the first African American municipal clerk in Montclair’s history. She had the required certifications and was experienced in the duties of the municipal clerk position.
The Township published a notice soliciting applications for the Municipal Clerk position in the spring of 2020. Sometime afterward, the complaint states that the deputy town manager called Lee for an interview. She met with him and again expressed her interest in the position and recounted her qualifications, experience and goals. She left the interview without any commitment.
Stafford continued to increase his abusive conduct toward Lee following Wanat’s retirement. During this time Stafford would repeatedly compel Lee to come to his office to subject her to verbal abuse concerning minor changes he felt should be made in documents she had prepared.
The complaint describes Stafford allegedly taking away Lee’s statutory responsibilities and instead giving them to his secretary. One of the statutory duties of the municipal clerk is to notarize the signature of municipal officers. During Wanat’s tenure as Municipal Clerk, Stafford routinely sent contracts he had signed to Wanat for her to notarize his signature. After Wanat retired, Stafford required Lee to come to his office to witness him notarize his signature, taking her away from work in her office. Stafford later began to have his secretary notarize his signature instead of the Municipal Clerk. Lee raised the issue with the town attorney given it involved a statutory duty. Lee was told her notary responsibilities were not an important duty and he would get back to her on it. He did not get back to her.
Lee’s physical and emotional wellbeing were impacted and she grew fearful in Stafford’s presence. She also feared the threat he posed to the financial security of her pension, the complaint states. Lee began to suffer physical ailments and became emotionally distressed from Stafford’s abusive behavior.
The complaint states that in July 2020, Lee reached a point where she could no longer tolerate the unconscionable work environment and submitted her notice to the Township that she would retire on November 1, 2020.
Lee’s final council meeting serving in the stead of Municipal Clerk was in September 2020. At that meeting, Lee was shocked when the Council passed a resolution appointing Stafford’s secretary, a woman between 30 and 40 years old, as Municipal Clerk. The appointment came after 18 months of Lee serving as Deputy Clerk, and effectively, the Municipal Clerk.
“I have been quiet up until now, but this is just too much to bear any longer. Of course as these are legal matters, I have to be careful about what I say,” says Councilor Robin Schlager. “As a woman, I am sick over what I am reading. But I’m also inspired by the bravery of these women for coming forward. We must thoroughly investigate all of these allegations. I’m concerned about the workplace culture if even a fraction of these allegations are true.”
“I was only able to work with Ms. Lee virtually because of the pandemic, a short while in 2020 after I took office. I found her to be incredibly warm, kind and helpful and it really upsets me to hear these allegations by now a second woman of color at Town Hall,” says Councilor Peter Yacobellis. “Last week the Council passed what I consider a woefully insufficient Resolution to put Mr. Stafford on paid administrative leave pending an exceedingly narrow investigation into concerns I had directly raised, in the press. The investigation authorized by the Resolution doesn’t include looking into the Affirmative Action report concluding a hostile work environment for Ms. Rao nor the complaints raised in Ms. Rao’s suit. Now with these revelations about Ms. Lee’s allegations, I think it prudent that we rescind that Resolution and craft a new, much broader one to address what’s becoming a litany of complaints against Mr. Stafford.”
“Juliet Lee was a hardworking, dedicated Deputy Clerk who served during the many years I was on the Council,” says Councilor Robert Russo. “I wish she had stayed to continue her work with this new council in 2020, but unfortunately she decided to retire early. It was a great loss to Montclair when both Linda Wanat and Juliet Lee retired within the same year! I supported her appointment as Clerk when she originally applied for the position after Linda Wanat left. The only three appointments the Council gets to make and oversee are the Township Manager, the Township Attorney and the Township Clerk. That is why we have a very limited role under this form of government and must at least study a possible change!”
Baristanet is reaching out to Stafford’s attorney, the Mayor and councilors for comment and will update.