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NJ Civil Settlements

NJ Department of Corrections appeals $1.6 million whistleblower verdict.

On January 12, 2018, the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) filed a Notice of Appeal contesting a  $1,630,423.02 judgment that was entered against the agency in favor of a former NJDOC administrator who a jury found had been retaliated against for engaging in protected whistleblower activities.  According to Camden County Superior Court Judge Anthony M. Pugliese’s December 15, 2017 Order, the $1,630,423.02 total award is broken down as follows: $1,022.840.00 in damages, $8,020.07 in pre-judgment interest, $530,832.05 in attorney fees and $68,730.94 in costs.  According to the jury’s October 6, 2017 verdict sheet, the $1,022.840 in damages was further broken down into $692,500 for “emotional distress” and $330,340.00 in “economic loss.”

The plaintiff in the matter is Meg Yatauro who began her employment with the NJDOC in April 1984 and later served as Administrator of the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center (ADTC) and the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility (Wagner).

In her lawsuit, Yatauro said that her problems at the NJDOC started when a search team, headed by Deputy Commissioner Mark Farsi, performed a routine search of the ADTC and found a pair of children’s scissors in an inmate’s cell.  According to Yatauro, the discovery of the scissors led to her being asked by Commissioner Gary M. Lanigan at an October 11, 2011 Challenge Historical Assumptions and Nobly Generate Efficiencies (CHANGE) meeting how the inmate came to possess the scissors.  Yatauro explained that the NJDOC had instituted a “Hobby Program” and that possession of the scissors by inmates was allowed by that program.

According to Yatauro’s suit, Lanigan was “astonished to learn of the existence of the ‘Hobby Program'” and ordered that hundreds of scissors be confiscated from all ADTC inmates.  On November 3, 2011, despite Yatauro’s assurances that all of the scissors had been confiscated, NJDOC officials sent a search team into ADTC to search for any scissors that may not have been confiscated.  This search resulted in about two dozen inmate complaints of verbal and physical abuse.  Specifically, four inmates complained that they were ordered to stand naked up against one another so that one inmate’s penis would be touching the next inmate’s buttocks” and that corrections officers called them “f*gs.”

Yatauro said that she found the complaints “credible” and forwarded them to Special Investigations Division (SID) for investigation.  She claimed that, Erica Madden, one of the SID investigators, only interviewed one of the four inmates who complained and refused to interview the other three because she didn’t want to work overtime.  Yatauro said that she reported Madden’s refusal to SID Chief Kevin Bolden who said that he wouldn’t authorize overtime unless “the inmates’ eyes were hanging out of their sockets.”  After receiving about a hundred complaints from inmates about the search, Yatauro said that she took her complaint up the chain of command.  She said that she was surprised when, during a meeting about Yatauro’s request for investigation, Deputy Commissioner Mark Farsi threatened her by telling her that Madden would not be working overtime and if “anything comes out of this investigation, it will be on you.”  In a subsequent conversation with Divisions of Operations Director Michelle Ricci, Yatauro claimed that she was told she would be held accountable if the SID investigation revealed any wrongdoing regarding the search.

Yatauro claimed that she suffered retaliation for pushing for the investigation.  She claimed that Farsi told her that if she ever spoke to Commissioner Lanigan again, he would “bite off her fingers.”  She also said that Madden screamed at her in January 2012 and that her complaints about Madden’s tirade were not satisfactorily addressed.  She said that she objected when Bolden told her the SID would investigate the Madden incident because “it had been widely rumored that Madden was romantically involved with Bolden.”  In a subsequent meeting with Bolden, Yatauro claimed that he told her he was “very angry with her for pursuing the complaint against Madden.”  The lawsuit alleged that Madden filed complaints against Yatauro for racially discriminating against her because she (Madden) was black.

In June 2012, Yatauro said that she was transferred to Wagner–the “worst jail” which was widely known as “the rat hole” by NJDOC employees.  She said that the transfer was a calculated attempt by NJDOC officials to make “her employment so intolerable that she would be forced to resign.”  She said that the Wagner facility was very filthy due to years of neglect and that she bought cleaning supplies and developed a plan to clean it up.  She claimed that Lanigan toured the Wagner facility in August 2012 and was “furious with her” about the filthy conditions at Wagner even though those conditions had existed for years prior to her transfer.

In another incident, Yatauro said that Bolden went outside the chain of command when he had Adrian Ellison, an SID investigator at Wagner, purchase some sage green paint for his office even though his request for the paint had already been denied by Ricci.  Yatauro confronted Ellison, according to the lawsuit, and told him that “she knew what they did was against the rules.”  Later, Ellison was assigned to investigate an anonymous letter claiming that tools were being stolen at Wagner and that employees were doing personal tasks during work hours.  According to Yatauro, Ellison’s main focus was not to determine the truth of the anonymous letter’s allegations but rather to find out who wrote it.  According to the suit, Ellison attempted to have Sergeant Richard Nappa, who Ellison believed was the letter’s author, criminally prosecuted for having written the letter. Yatauro claimed that Ricci rebuffed her complaints about the manner in which Ellison conducted the investigation.

In still another alleged incident, Yatauro said that she received a complaint that Ellison had visited a Wagner sergeant’s wife’s place of employment–a nail salon–and asked her for the sergeant’s work schedule while Ellison was having his nails done.  The sergeant’s wife allegedly reported that Ellison’s actions were “creepy” and made her feel uncomfortable.  She said that her complaints to NJDOC officials regarding Ellison’s conduct at the nail salon were disregarded but that her persistence in pursing the complaint as well as “additional complaints of sexual harassment that had come to light” ultimately resulted in Ellison being disciplined.  According to the lawsuit, Bolden, who allegedly belonged to the same Masonic Lodge as Ellison, was “displeased” that Ellison was disciplined.

In December 2012, Christopher Holmes, who Yatauro said has “a close personal relationship” with Bolden, became her direct supervisor.  Holmes allegedly undermined Yatauro during meetings and “required her to constantly re-write reports” when the same demands were not made of other NJDOC administrators.

Yatauro’s lawsuit lists many more allegations that are not recounted here.  In sum she claimed that the retaliation she suffered culminated in her May 16, 2013 demotion from Administrator to Executive Assistant that resulted in an $26,000 salary reduction.  She said that she was assigned to perform the duties of a file clerk which she found “not only extremely demeaning but a complete waste of [her] talents and abilities.”  She said that the intolerable working conditions forced her to retire on March 1, 2014.

According to an August 1, 2017 court filing, defendants Judith Lang and Christopher Holmes were dismissed from the lawsuit.

The trial court case was captioned Meg Yatauro v. Kevin Bolden, et al, Superior Court Docket No. CAM-L-1901-14 and Yatauro’s’ attorney is Heidi R. Weintraub of Cherry Hill.  The matter is currently pending before the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division.

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project