Former deputy clerk files suit against Montclair Township, Stafford
A former longtime Montclair municipal employee has filed a gender and age discrimination lawsuit against Township Manager Timothy Stafford, becoming the second woman in two weeks to accuse Stafford in court of creating a “hostile work environment” for her and other female staff.
Juliet Lee, a former deputy clerk, says in her suit filed on Friday, Oct. 28, that Stafford’s “abusive” and “oppressive” behavior forced her to retire two years ago, and compelled her to sell her Bloomfield home and move to Toms River to minimize her having anything to do with Montclair. Still carrying the scars of her time working under Stafford, her lawsuit says, merely returning to Montclair for family visits causes her to relive the “trauma” of her last years on the job.
Stafford was placed on paid temporary administrative leave by the Township Council last week, soon after Montclair’s chief financial officer, Padmaja Rao, filed a similar suit in Essex County Superior Court. Both suits also name Montclair as a defendant.
In its meeting last week, the Township Council voted 5-1 on Stafford’s leave – but not before bedlam broke out. Legislative decorum was tossed aside as council members screamed at one another. And a jeering, packed gallery drowned out much of the debate with demands for Stafford’s firing and the resignations of Mayor Sean Spiller and others on the council.
With a second woman having come forward with harassment allegations against Stafford, the council may face further turmoil at its meeting Tuesday night. Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said in a statement Monday that a resolution passed last week to investigate Rao’s accusations should be rescinded. He called for a broader investigation in its place that would include an examination of the two lawsuits and the internal report by Montclair’s Affirmative Action officer that found Stafford had created a “hostile work environment” for the CFO.
The report, obtained by Montclair Local from a confidential source, said that top officials, including Acting Township Attorney Paul Burr and then-Deputy Town Manager Brian Scantlebury, were aware of Rao’s grievances.
In his statement Yacobellis said he had recently received a Notice of Claim from Stafford’s
attorney, threatening him with a defamation lawsuit for his public comments decrying Stafford while calling for greater transparency on the part of town officials.
“This is the kind of textbook bullying that led to the apparent toxic culture we must evaluate and address to insure that our residents are properly respected and served and our employees feel safe and supported,” Yacobellis said. Stafford’s lawyer, Patrick Toscano, did not reply to a phone message left with his office.
Calls, emails and texts to Spiller, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo, 2nd Ward Councilor Robin Schlager and 3rd Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams received no response. David Cummings, the 4th Ward Councilor, said he would not comment on any litigation.
Roosevelt Nesmith, who is representing both Rao and Lee in their separate suits, also declined to comment.
As Rao does in her suit, Lee depicts a troubled workplace at 205 Claremont Avenue, with female employees beset with fear and anxiety that Stafford would single them out with a burst of temper, often subjecting them to humiliation in front of others working in the Municipal Building. Describing one particularly harrowing episode in her lawsuit, Lee alleges that Stafford ordered her to search through a trash can to find copies of papers, as other employees looked on.
“Lee witnessed Stafford engage in a pattern of abusive conduct toward female employees in township administration, behavior he did not display toward male employees,” Lee asserts in her suit.
“Lee was traumatized by Stafford’s behavior toward her,” the suit says. “None of the Montclair officials present intervened to challenge Stafford’s verbal abuse and humiliation of Lee.”
Stafford, according to Lee’s suit, would sometimes call her into his office to watch him castigate a female colleague. Citing a particular incident, the suit says that the town manager called Lee and another female employee into his office before he began screaming at the other woman.
“After he finished screaming,” the suit says, “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.”
Lee held a number of positions in township government after being hired in 2001, leading to her appointment as deputy clerk in 2013. After the municipal clerk, Linda Wanat, retired three years ago, the suit says, Lee took on the responsibilities of both jobs before Stafford began stripping her of statutory duties, including her ability to notarize the signature of municipal employees.
When Lee applied to become clerk, Stafford met with her several times to discuss her application and credentials, openly yelling and insulting her in earshot of other workers, the lawsuit says, finally forcing her to give notice that she would resign. Had she been promoted, she would have become Montclair’s first African American woman to become the municipal clerk.
“Stafford’s belligerence toward Lee and his undermining of her work responsibilities began to negatively impact Lee’s physical and emotional wellbeing,” the suit says. “Lee grew fearful in his presence. She also feared the threat he posed to the financial security of her pension. Lee began to suffer physical ailments and became emotionally distressed from Stafford’s abusive behavior. Lee felt physically ill from the emotional strain of going to work.
“Lee reached a point where she could no longer tolerate the unconscionable work environment Stafford created for her in the Montclair municipal building,” the suit charges.
As part of her duties, Lee took minutes at council meetings. Records of her last meeting on Sept. 29, 2020, show that Lee was honored at the beginning of the session for all her years of service before she took the minutes for a final time. At the very end of the meeting, the council unanimously passed legislation to promote Angelese Bermudez Nieves, Stafford’s secretary, to Municipal Clerk, a position Bermudez Nieves still holds.