FRANKLIN TOWNSHIP, NJ - A Somerset County Superior Court Judge ordered the township to turn over documents relating to notification of a discrimination lawsuit to the TAPinto Franklin Township online newspaper, court records show.
"At a time when public confidence in our government and institutions is waning, it is important to restore trust in these institutions,” TAPinto CEO, Mike Shapiro said. “One of the best ways to do so is to help increase transparency regarding them. We are proud of TAPinto Franklin's successful efforts to do so in Franklin Township."
According to a May 15 order from Somerset County Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone, sitting in Somerville, Franklin Township must turn over the notice involving alleged discrimination against a township police officer to the online newspaper as well as pay the news organization’s attorneys fees in the case.
“In the current climate, public agencies should not be trying to keep information from the public about discrimination allegations that are made by public employees,” said C.J. Griffin, an attorney with the Pashman Stein Walder Hayden law firm in Hackensack that litigated the case. “A tort claims notice puts the agency on notice that a suit is forthcoming and the public needs to be aware of potential liability an agency may face, since taxpayer money is at stake.”
TAPinto Franklin Township Town Editor Malik Lyons made a request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for the documents on Jan. 29 for any documents relating to a notice of a discrimination lawsuit against the town by Franklin Police Lt. Kristen Durham, according to court documents.
Under OPRA, the town must respond in seven days with either the requested materials or a letter of denial stating the reason for not turning over the requested documents.
The township can also request an extension of time to get the documents prepared, according to the law.
If denied, a member of the public, or news organization, can then either file a complaint with the Open Public Records Council, a statewide committee that hears and administratively arbitrates these cases, or file a show cause order directly in superior court for a ruling on the case, according to OPRA.
In this case, the township did respond in seven days asking for an extension of time on Feb. 7, but then issued a denial for the request two days later citing exceptions to the OPRA law regarding the content of the claim.
According to the denial, the town claimed that because the suit involved
“sexual harassment,” a grievance filed against another employee, was part of a collective bargaining arrangement, and was currently part of an ongoing investigation, according to court records.
Lyons and the Hackensack law firm filed a show cause order to release the documents on March 14, with an April 9 court date in Somerville in front of Ciccone.
Ciccone looked at the claim in question and determined that the show cause motion should be granted and that the township unlawfully withheld the information under OPRA, according to the order.
Franklin Township turned over the documents to TAPinto Franklin Township on May 23.
In the Notice of Tort Claim, Lt. Kristen Durham, a 22-year veteran of the department, claims that she has been a victim of gender discrimination, a hostile work environment, and was passed over for promotion to the rank of captain, despite her qualifications.
The claim charges the administration of the department with several instances of unfair treatment, including a “berating” by the deputy police chief for attending an event at the middle school that Township Councilwoman Kimberly Francois had invited her to.
According to the claim, many of these events took place throughout 2017 with both current and former officials in the township.
The claim did not say how much in damages Durham is seeking in the suit as that is still being determined.
Township Attorney Louis N. Rainone said he cannot comment on the matter.
The department was also recently sued by another officer claiming discrimination because of his race.