Sexual Harassment Suit Against Former Director of Little Egg Township MUA Settled Out of Court
An April 21 tweet by blogger John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Advocacy Project, has opened the doors on an alleged unsavory work environment at the Little Egg Harbor Municipal Utilities Authority under the leadership of former director David Johnson. Through the Open Public Records Act, Paff obtained complaints filed on Jan. 2, 2015, in Superior Court by former MUA employee Nichole Kelley. The complaints alleged that during her employment, which lasted from 2000 to 2014 when she left on a medical leave, she was sexually harassed by Johnson and was retaliated against at her workplace.
On Jan. 7, 2016, Johnson and the MUA agreed to settle the lawsuit with Kelley. Under the terms of the court documents, the MUA paid $15,000 while the MUA’s insurer – the New Jersey Utility Authority Joint Insurance Fund – paid $125,000.
In her suit, Kelley claimed that on multiple occasions – each work week, she claimed – Johnson would kiss her on the mouth and hug her. She also claimed he made a drunken advance while she was at Sea Oaks Country Club in December 2012 with women friends, asking her if he could be her sugar daddy. She said he also came to the door of her townhouse and would invade her personal space while at work.
The complaint went on to say that despite her having attended college to become a qualified purchasing agent for the MUA and getting that position, her salary went up only $2 an hour.
After Superstorm Sandy devastated the Mystic Island section of the township in October 2012, Kelley was taken back into a clerical position to help with the increased workload while retaining her other duties. She alleged that despite her needing additional space to do her work, Johnson gave his son, Vincent Johnson, a private office.
In January 2014, her doctor put Kelley on medical leave due to stress. According to the MUA commission minutes of that month, Johnson had no objection in granting her sick leave. But in March of that year, Johnson instructed her to talk to an MUA attorney on why she had left work, and she divulged the sexual harassment and retaliation.
In April 2014, Kelley’s doctor again told her she would have to take sick leave because of stress until June 16. The MUA rejected the request and told her to return to work. In May she was told she had exhausted her sick time for the year and had to return to work immediately. On May 7, she wrote to the MUA that the stress was a result of “all that has occurred with the sexual harassment/harassment and now retaliation.”
She did return to work to avoid losing her job. Shortly after her return she was disciplined for allegedly making unauthorized copies of an OPRA request, and on May 13 she was fired for this infraction.
In her lawsuit, Kelley claimed Johnson and the MUA conspired to retaliate against her by rejecting her application for temporary disability while she was on sick leave and for contesting her unemployment claim after she was fired.
In the complaint, Kelley also brought suit against unnamed John and Jane Does and ABC Companies for intentional and malicious actions against her. Members of the MUA at the time were Chairman Joseph Coptic, Vice Chairwoman Margaret DePergola – who also was in charge of sexual harrassment claims by women – Treasurer Earl Miller, Secretary Richard Robbins and members Marie Skelly, Richard Crea and Eugene Kobryn.
David Johnson retired from his job on Sept. 9, 2014, after 27 years and was replaced by Earl Sutton. Johnson is drawing a $103,051 annual pension and had a final annual salary of $205,526.
Because the MUA settled, none of Kelley’s allegations have been proven or disproved in court. Settlement agreements state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.
The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties from publicly disclosing the settlement terms. But the OPRA laws give the public the right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant, and Paff applied for and released the documents.
— Pat Johnson