On December 10, 2021, Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office confidentially paid $165,000 to a female County Detective who claimed that it “has long been a hostile work environment for [her] as female and gay.” The suit names former Prosecutor Charles A. Fiore and the woman’s direct supervisor, Lieutenant Robert Hemphill, as defendants.
In her lawsuit filed on March 9, 2020, Breia Renner, who was appointed a County Detective in 2007, claimed that she was subjected to “outrageous sexual harassment” by Det. Keith Palek in 2013. Specifically, she claimed that Palek exposed himself to her and placed his penis on her desk, called her a “c**t” and told her that she was gay because she “hadn’t had the right dick.” She said that her complaints to Sgt. Danielle LoRusso and Sgt. Charles Landi about Palek were not taken seriously and that Landi “just laughed” at her complaints.
According to the lawsuit, her complaint and others eventually led to an investigation that resulted in internal charges against Palek for an ethics violation and against Sgt. LoRusso and Sgt. Landi for a failure to supervise. Still, Renner claimed, the Prosecutor’s Office “took no measures to prevent retaliation and further harassment.” She said that after the investigation the harassment worsened.
Renner claimed that despite being a highly trained narcotics officer, she was transferred to Grand Jury duty in 2015 which she claimed was “a task a rookie officer could easily handle.” She said that the assignment is viewed by her peers as punishment. The assignment was supposed to keep her away from Palek, but Palek was also transferred to the Grand Jury unit with her, according to the lawsuit. When she said that she wanted to work with “anyone but Palek,” she was allegedly laughed at by her superiors.
She claimed that she later met with Prosecutor Fiore, gave him a history of her experiences with Palek and asked to be transferred to the Crime Scene Investigation Unit (“CSI Unit”). After Fiore didn’t transfer her, Renner learned in May 2018 that a male detective with less seniority was going to be transferred by Fiore to the CSI Unit. Renner claimed that the application procedure for getting into the CSI Unit was changed in June 2018 and that at the same time Hemphill approved and scheduled her male competitor to attend Crime Scene School to make him more qualified than Renner for the position.
According to Renner’s complaint, she and her wife attended a office golf outing with Fiore, his wife and other employees in June 2018. Fiore allegedly told her and her wife that “both of you are the best-looking lesbians [he] has ever seen.” and asked “how do you guys have sex?” He allegedly supplied his own answer: “Scissoring.” Fiore’s wife allegedly grabbed Renner’s wife, “turned her around and humped her in front of a number of people.” Fiore’s wife then asked “where she could buy a strap-on dildo to use on the Prosecutor” and then grabbed another employee by the butt and blew in his ears, according to the lawsuit.
Renner said that she finally was selected for the CSI Unit in August 2018 after a complaint had been made about Fiore’s alleged conduct at the golf outing. She claimed, however, that she “remained assigned in Grand Jury until a couple of weeks after her six week training was completed on November 17, 2018.”
Renner said that she was typically assigned older, unreliable vehicles to drive but that she got a new car after her assignment to CSI. She said that in November 2018, Fiore made it a point to tell her about the golf outing complaint against him “and pressured her to say that it was not offensive.” He also took credit for her new car assignment and “impl[ied] that the car, as well as the CSI assignment, was something he did for her in exchange for her not complaining about his conduct,” according to the lawsuit.
Palek was assigned to Major Crimes in November 2018, which meant that Renner would have to work with him again, according to the lawsuit. In February 2019, Renner claimed that both she and Palek were assigned back to Grand Jury and that her complaint to Fiore about the assignment was ignored. She also claimed that she was denied an interview for a open position in Internal Affairs and was denied a brand new SUV in 2019 even though officers with less seniority than her, including Palek, were assigned one.
When she complained about not getting a new vehicle, Hemphill allegedly referred to her as a “c**t.” After an Internal Affairs investigation into Hemphill’s alleged comment, Hemphill “was rewarded when he was elevated to the responsibilities of Captain” and became Renner’s supervisor according to the lawsuit.
According to a March 11, 2020 newspaper article, “Prosecutor who just quit hit with lawsuit from detective claiming sexual harassment”, by Matt Gray for nj.com, Fiore abruptly resigned just days before Renner’s lawsuit was filed.
Of the $165,000, Renner received $105,000 for her “alleged noneconomic pain and suffering” and the remaining $60,000 went to her attorney.
The case is captioned Breia Renner v. Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office, et al, Docket No. GLO-L-341-20 and Renner’s attorney was Jacqueline M. Vigilante of Mullica Hill. The civil lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.
The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause under which Renner agreed to keep the settlement agreement secret. 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 lawsuit’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the employees or officials named in the lawsuit. Renner’s allegations against Fiore, his wife, Hemphill, Palek and other employees and officials in the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office are just that–-unproven allegations. All that is known for sure is that Gloucester County or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Renner $165,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision 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 resolve before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.