A Galloway Township employee whose previous position was eliminated has filed a lawsuit against individuals who were representing the township at the time of her termination, with the intent to get her job back and recover lost wages over the past year.
Jody Smith, the township's former land use administrator/zoning officer earlier this year filed a civil lawsuit in state Superior Court against current Mayor Don Purdy, former Mayor Keith Hartman, Township Planner Tiffany Cuviello, former Township Manager Steve Bonanni and multiple other unnamed defendants on Feb. 3.
Smith’s attorney, Clifford L. Van Syoc, said that because of the complexities of the case, it would likely be between two and three years before the case went to court.
Smith’s position was eliminated at the council meeting on Feb. 22, 2011. This resulted in Smith being laid off, but through what is known as the “bumping process,” she retained her employment status with the township, and is currently employed in the Tax Assessor’s Office, where she has taken a pay cut.
In eliminating her previous position, she alleges that all defendants acted as agents of Galloway Township to participate in, aid or abet. She alleges they conspired and engaged in acts furthering the conspiracy.
In her lawsuit, Smith seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as a return to her previous position.
Smith further claims she has been deprived of due process right and continued interest in her position of public rights as a result of the defendants’ violation of the 2004 Civil Rights Act, and her rights under the state constitution.
Bonanni was not available for comment. Hartman and Cuviello did not return phone messages seeking comment late Thursday afternoon. Township Solicitor Michael Blee, who is currently on vacation, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Purdy and Kleiner did not comment.
In the lawsuit, Smith states those who worked to have her position eliminated not only did so illegally, but that it is illegal for the township to not have a Zoning Officer, a point Smith made in public during the Feb. 22 meeting. At the time, Bonanni indicated her position would be split between three people, but Smith responded that only Cuviello, a part-time employee, was qualified to do that job.
The lawsuit contains an email shared between Councilman Dennis Kleiner and former Township Manager Roger Tees, in which Tees informs Kleiner that Smith’s position will be eliminated and no other layoffs were being considered at that time. The reasons given in both the email and in public referenced Smith’s department’s inability to sustain itself through inspection- and permit fees, and that it worked in a budget deficit that was supplemented by the general fund. During the meeting, Hartman estimated the township would save between $60,000 and $70,000, and Councilman Tony Coppola is quoted in the lawsuit as stating residential permits dropped from 372 to 28, a statement Smith disputes as false.
The lawsuit references a phone call from Kleiner to Smith informing her he was faxing her an email that showed her position was being eliminated, and that he believed Hartman and Purdy were acting illegally. However, Smith later references that same email as having been provided to her by Tees.
In the lawsuit, Smith claims Kleiner said he felt Purdy, who was Deputy Mayor at the time, had a vendetta against Smith.
The vendetta was an apparent reference to Smith’s actions in opposing what she believed to be unlawful conduct before both the council and the zoning board.
According to Smith, an applicant who was seeking a zoning variance and to have a street vacated was represented by an unnamed “head of the local Republican Party,” who was closely affiliated with many members of the council and zoning board.
In the lawsuit, Smith claims Purdy appeared on behalf of the applicant, and was heard to scream across the room that “neighbors should all get along,” allegedly being motivated by his close relationship with the applicant and those who supported them. This incident took place prior to Purdy's election to council in 2009.
In the lawsuit, Smith further claims that Tees told Smith during an encounter on July 18 that he would swear under oath that Purdy lied during the Feb. 22 meeting when he stated it was Tees who wanted to eliminate Smith’s position. She also alleged that Purdy and Hartman “secretly and illegally” met with Cuviello about transferring Smith’s duties to Cuviello.
In her lawsuit, Smith alleges that Bonanni’s salary was increased by $18,000 following Smith’s termination, which Smith says shows her termination was not related to financial matters. Smith also alleges several other township employees have received salary increases, at least two of which she believed to be $5,000 increases.
She earned $37,000 during her time with the township, which lasted 14 years. The township disputed her title as Zoning Officer, stating Construction Official Richard Roesch was the Zoning Officer. In Smith’s suit, she claims Roesch never acknowledged himself as the Zoning Officer.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a turbulent year for the municipality, which includes separate tort claim notices filed by former Township Clerk Lisa Tilton, each for $3 million, but no lawsuits appear to have been filed relating to either complaint at this time.