The attorney for the former township clerk who filed a lawsuit against Galloway Township and former Solicitor Michael Blee has 20 days to clarify which charges apply to the township and which charges apply specifically to Blee and his law firm in the “wherefore” clauses of the complaint, Judge J. Christopher Gibson ruled in a pretrial motion conducted at the Cape May County Courthouse Friday morning, Sept. 28.
Once the clarification is made, Blee’s attorney Daniel Baylson and Attorney Michael Barker, representing the township and the individuals named, have each said they would respond within 20 days, although Barker left open the possibility that he may take a little longer to do so. The maximum amount of time he would have to respond is 35 days.
Former Township Clerk Lisa Tilton filed a lawsuit against Galloway Township and Blee in May, and she and Attorney Steven Srenaski have been awaiting responses since. Baylson and Barker argued that the complaint, which is 27 counts and 86 pages long, doesn’t specify which counts pertain to the township and the individual defendants, and which pertained to Blee and his law offices.
The full list of defendants named in the suit is as follows: the Township of Galloway; former Township Manager Steve Bonanni, in his individual and official capacity; Mayor Don Purdy, in his individual and official capacity; Deputy Mayor Tony Coppola, in his individual and official capacity; former council member Dennis Kleiner; current council members Tom Bassford, Jim Gorman, Brian Tyrrell and Whitney Ullman, each in their individual and official capacities; former Township Solicitor Michael Blee in both his capacity with the township and the Law Office of Michael Blee; Township Clerk Thalia Kay, in her official capacity; Registrar of Vital Statistics Carol Hackney, in her official capacity; and former Acting Township Clerk Karen Bacon, in her official capacity.
“My client is referenced in counts seven and 15, but the rest of the counts just name defendants, plural,” Baylson said in the courtroom on Friday. “We request the plaintiff amend the complaint so we know exactly what is being brought against us.”
“This is not a motion to dismiss,” Barker said in the courtroom on Friday. “We just want the complaint to be more definite. … It’s important to know who each count is targeting so we can represent each client differently.”
Barker argued that some of those named were just swept up as part of the lawsuit, and that they aren’t really part of the lawsuit. Srenaski defended the complaint by stating it was his legal right to “plead liberally and probe the involvement of any number of individuals.”
“We have a number of experienced attorneys on this case,” Srenaski told Judge Gibson via telephone conference on Friday. “After we go through discovery, if they contend that any of the defendants have been swept up, we can address it like professionals, but to claim that at this stage is entirely premature.”
Barker was requesting that each count be addressed to each individual. However, Gibson ruled that only charges against Blee had to be clarified, for insurance coverage reasons. Both sides agreed, and the timetable was set.
Judge Gibson expressed concern over how slowly the case has moved since it was filed four months ago. The slow pace is partially due to the fact that the case was moved from Atlantic County to Cape May County jurisdiction in June.
Gibson asked the attorneys for any suggestions on how the move the case forward more quickly, and Barker mentioned the idea of a discovery period concerning the agreement signed by Tilton and the township following the special hearing of July 18.
That agreement included mutual general releases, which would release the township, township council, Bonanni, township employees, counsel of the township and Tilton from any and all claims up to and including July 18.
Barker requested a special discovery process that would determine why that agreement Tilton is claiming the agreement is void, and if any counts in the complaint that took place prior to July 18 could be dismissed.
“It’s impossible to tailor discovery that way,” Srenaski said. “The procedural mechanisms would benefit the defendants. Am I supposed to take 12 depositions to do this, cut them off at a certain point, tell them to reprepare and then take the depositions again?”
Gibson stated he would not order the discovery period over Srenaski’s objections.
Tilton is seeking to have that agreement overturned on the basis that the township later violated it. She is seeking reinstatement as Township Clerk with back pay, benefits and all other emoluments of her employment, as well as compensatory damages, counsel fees, costs and interest, and any other future relief deemed “just and proper” by the judge.
The complaint also charges Bonanni with sexual harassment, and that there was a vendetta involving Bonanni and Kleiner to have her removed from her position with the township.
Violations of the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) by the township are also included, along with claims that the township, Blee and his law office released her personal information to a third party seeking information on the situation in August of last year.
The sides have a mediation scheduled for Nov. 8.