As seen in The Press of Atlantic City July 16, 2019 edition
by MICHELLE BRUNETTI POST Staff Writer
A judge on Friday dismissed Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson and Freeholder Frank Formica from the lawsuit alleging discrimination against women by County Prosecutor Damon Tyner.
“The reason I was put in, in the first place, is I went to a rally at a church in Pleasantville in support of Damon Tyner,” said Levinson on Monday. “Not about whether he was guilty or innocent (of the charges of discrimination), but in support of him as a human being and what he has given to the community.”
Levinson credited Tyner with successfully bringing murder and drug charges against Linwood doctor James Kauffman, in the 2012 death of his wife April Kauffman. The case had gone cold under previous prosecutors.
Kauffman killed himself in prison.
The suit, filed in January by former Assistant Prosecutor Diane Ruberton, former Lt. Heather McManus and current Assistant Prosecutor Donna Fetzer, alleges gender discrimination, retaliation and other illicit behavior by the prosecutor and others in his office.
The attorney representing Levinson and Formica said Monday that Cumberland County Superior Court Judge James R. Swift found no merit to any of the claims against his clients, and dismissed the case against them with prejudice. That means the plaintiffs can’t file an amended claim to bring them back in, he said.
The case was moved to Cumberland County in March.
“It appears the plaintiffs were trying to silence County Executive Levinson and Freeholder Formica from speaking out in support of the fine job Damon Tyner has done,” said Russell Lichtenstein, a partner at Cooper Levenson.
Lawyers for the women released a written statement via email Monday afternoon.
“We believe that Dennis Levinson and Frank Formica engaged in actions that were retaliatory and that failed to protect these three women from discrimination,” said Michelle Douglass and Philip Burnham, the lawyers for the women. “New Jersey law makes clear that these actions can be the basis of a legal claim of discrimination even if the retaliation comes after an employee is no longer at her job.”
Tyner, whose office did not respond to a request for comment Monday, released a statement about the suit at the time it was filed.
“It is apparent that the plaintiffs are living in an alternative universe,” the statement said. “The very same conduct they accuse me and the members of my administration of committing was actually carried out by them and others during their brief, ineffective period of leadership of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office.”
Levinson called his inclusion in the sex discrimination case “preposterous,” pointing out that he and the county have no say over who is appointed prosecutor, or how the office is run.
“As their lawyers should know … he is appointed by the governor,” Levinson said, and the prosecutor’s office operates independently.
Formica was named in the suit, according to Levinson, because his brother, Mario Formica, worked for the Prosecutor’s Office.
County Counsel Jim Ferguson estimated the inclusion of Levinson and Formica has already cost county taxpayers at least $20,000 in legal bills and expenses related to the case.
And the expenses will continue, Ferguson said, because the county itself is still named in the lawsuit.
“It’s an outrage. We don’t appoint, direct or hire anybody for that office,” Levinson said. “All we do is pay for it.”
He said the lawsuit will stretch out for quite some time, and cost the county taxpayers plenty.
“It is what it is. We have to live with it,” Levinson said.
The women allege in the suit that Tyner demoted high-ranking women while giving men raises, paid newly hired women at a lower rate than newly hired men, covered up complaints of gender discrimination and spoke in a derogatory fashion about women in general.
In addition to allegations of gender discrimination, the three women claim Tyner was involved in mortgage fraud, failed to investigate a claim that a police officer was leaking confidential information about the April Kauffman murder case and failed to tell defense counsel about the possible leak. They also accuse him of firing employees to hire his brother, and refusing to investigate after an assistant prosecutor exchanged advice via texts with a defendant in a pending domestic violence case.
Regarding Levinson and Formica, the lawsuit alleged they “refuse to look deeper at gender bias and systemically devalue plaintiffs, as women, in the workplace” and “have publicly announced their support of the male defendants even before this lawsuit was filed and even before all the facts were and/or have been disclosed.”
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