TOWNSHIP OF BERKELEY – Town hall is facing not one, but two lawsuits filed this summer that made allegations against an employee from the township’s tax department, Joyce Maldonado. Both plaintiffs are being represented by the same out-of-county attorney in their lawsuits and allege that Maldonado made ethnicity-based insults in the workplace – and township officials did nothing to stop it.
Legal Trouble In The Berkeley Township Tax Collector’s Office
Former Berkeley tax department employee Catherine Panconi filed the first lawsuit against the township in connection with allegations against Maldonado back in June of this year. Panconi’s complaint, filed in the Law Division of Ocean County Superior Court, alleges that she experienced a pattern of “severe [and] pervasive” harassment from her coworker while she was employed in the tax collector’s office.
Tax Collector’s Office Employee Accused Of Saying “Guinea,” “Wop,” Anti-Italian Racist Slurs
Citing Ms. Maldonado’s alleged “hostility to Italian-Americans” in court documents, Panconi’s attorney, Kevin Costello, contends that his client was “forced to listen to the use of the word ‘wop’ and ‘guinea,’ slurs meant to specifically reference Italian-Americans, from her co-worker, Joyce Maldonado, at least half a dozen times during the years 2014 and 2015.”
Costello also wrote in the complaint “Because the conduct was ignored, and because upper management was willfully indifferent, compensatory and punitive damages are warranted for the extent to which the workplace had become hostile and/or intimidating and/or abusive.”
Second Lawsuit Filed In Late August
In late August, another employee from the tax collector’s office filed suit against Berkeley Township, with allegations similar to those in the Panconi case. The second plaintiff is also being represented by Mr. Costello, whose law practice is based out of Mount Laurel.
The second person to sue over Joyce Maldonado’s conduct, Michele Ward alleged in her complaint that “Ms. Maldonado exposed [her] the plaintiff to Italian-American slurs at least 15-20 times” from February to August, 2015.
In spite of this, Ward’s lawyer claimed that after Ward attempted to comfort Maldonado after she made statements about problems in her life – even though they did not get along in the past – Maldonado is alleged to have reacted with more anti-Italian slurs directed at Ward, along with making a “finger-twirl” gesture.
“This gesture has been known in American culture for decades,” wrote Ward’s attorney. Mr. Costello added that the allegedly gesture made by Maldonado denot[ed] mental illness attributable to the plaintiff [Ward].”
Ward’s lawsuit also said that she also suffers from “chronic depression,” a disability recognized under the LAD and case law as protected, and that her coworkers were aware of it when these actions allegedly occurred.
The suit also claimed that Maldonado repeatedly suggested that Ward was exaggerating or faking her illness and disability.
According to court documents, Ms. Ward alleges that when she went to her supervisor, then-Berkeley tax collector Danielle Peacock, her response was “I don’t want to hear it.” That response was “…an answer she frequently gave whenever anyone in the office complained to her about anything,” according to Ward’s attorney.
“You Should Off Yourself”
The Ward lawsuit also alleged that as the relationship between the two township employees continued to deteriorate in light of the alleged slurs, Maldonado would later make statements implying that Ward should commit suicide.
According to the lawsuit, “Ms. Maldonado said to the plaintiff [Ward] ‘you should off yourself’ (referring to suicide) so that she, Ms. Maldonado, could be “spared” plaintiff’s issues.”
Ward’s attorney wrote that this was traumatizing to her, as she previously made an unsuccessful suicide attempt back in 2001, in addition to struggling with depression.
Court Docs: Fred Ebenau “Won’t Reward” Ward With A Transfer
When Ms. Ward couldn’t get anywhere with her supervisor, she claims to have requested a meeting with the CFO / Treasurer of Berkeley Township, Fred Ebenau, and other unnamed high-level township officials.
Ward claims to have requested permission from Ebenau to be transferred to another department, citing openings in the Planning and Zoning offices at the time, but according to Ward’s lawsuit, Ebenau told her that he would not “reward” her with a transfer, and her attorney contends that this, among other examples, shows “willful indifference” on the township’s part with respect to her legal claims.
Mr. Ebenau is currently Berkeley’s CFO / Treasurer. For a period of time in 2015, Mr. Ebenau briefly took the wheel as Berkeley’s acting administrator after Mayor Amato had a falling out with the previous administrator, Lacey’s Chris Reid.
At the time of Reid’s depature, Mayor Amato spun it as a “mutual parting of the ways” in a statement he made to the Asbury Park Press at the time.
Reid, a career attorney and former president of the Lacey Republican Club, was temporarily replaced by Ebenau until John Camera was hired as the new township administrator, and in the months following Reid’s departure from Berkeley, the Lacey Township Committee gave Reid a six-figure patronage job as the township’s new “director of community development.”
Violation Of Law Against Discrimination Alleged
Both women are suing Berkeley Township under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD), which makes the following types of discrimination illegal within the state:
Both of their lawsuits are currently working their way through the legal system, and we hope to have more information available on the cases as more documents are filed.