On September 3, 2020, Burlington County and a lawyer agreed to pay a former assistant library director $40,000 to resolve her lawsuit that alleged, among other issues, that library officials retaliated against her after she “overreacted” by directing a staff member to call 911 when a “noxious odor” invaded the library and caused several people to have breathing difficulties and two to be taken to the hospital.

In her lawsuit, Heather Andolsen said that her 2017 911 call angered Library Director Ranjna Das who allegedly told her that “she overreacted to the situation” and “that she hoped that we would not have more instances of this embarrassing situation.”

Andolsen said that shortly after the incident, Das reduced her job responsibilities. After returning from a medical leave of absence in 2018, Andolsen claimed that Das “escalated a campaign designed to remove [Andolsen] from her position and/or force [her] to leave her position as Assistant Director.” She alleged that her duties were restructured without her knowledge or input.

After filing a written complaint asking for Das’ conduct to be investigated and complaining of safety violations in the library, Andolsen claimed that she was demoted and reassigned to another library branch which was the furthest branch from her home. She alleged that her new assignment did not give her access to a computer or a phone.

She said that she was told that the reassignment was done temporarily while her complaint against Das was investigated. Despite this promise, she alleged that county officials and William R. Burns, then an attorney with Capehart Scatchard, did not take “reasonable steps designed to promptly investigate [her] complaints. Andolsen claimed that library officials consistently denied her requests to be moved back to her former position or at least be transferred to a branch where she would have computer and phone access.

Andolsen was transferred to another branch in September 2018 where “her job duties were further reduced,” according to the lawsuit. About that time, she was told that Burns would investigate her complaints. When she met with Burns on September 13, 2018, Andolsen claimed that she reiterated her complaints and expressed her desire to be returned to her original library branch. Burns allegedly “failed to properly investigate [her] complaints” and instead asked her for a “settlement number.”

After her meeting with Burns, Andolsen said that Das’ harassment intensified. During a September 19, 2018 staff meeting, Das “referred to gossipers and nay sayers in the workplace” and made it clear that Andolsen’s duties and responsibilities were again being reduced, according to the lawsuit. Das’ alleged comments caused Andolsen to call and e-mail Burns. According to the lawsuit, Burns failed to meaningfully respond to Andolsen’s and her lawyer’s repeated requests for Andolsen be returned to her original position.

After allegedly being told by Das that she would be working at the reassigned branch indefinitely, Andolsen said that she realized “her complaints were futile” and involuntarily resigned from the library on October 6, 2018.

Of the $40,000 settlement, Andolsen received $20,000 from Burlington County and $6,666.67 on behalf Burns. Her lawyer received $10,000 from the County and $3,333.33 on behalf of Burns.

The case is captioned Heather Andolsen v. Burlington County, et al, Docket No. BUR-L-78-19 and Andolsen’s attorney was Dominick Bratti of Shrewsbury. Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement’s terms to others, including the media. In this case, the clause prohibits disclosure of even the existence of the agreement. Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public’s right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of Andolsen’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute a finding or an admission of wrongdoing by Das, Burns or any of the defendants named in the lawsuit. All that is known for sure is that Burlington and Burns or their insurers, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Andolsen $40,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to paff@pobox.com