Credit: Photo taken by John Paff

On October 1, 2021, the City of Absecon, Atlantic County NJ, paid $50,000 and resolved two disciplinary charges against a female police sergeant who claimed retaliation for objecting to not having a private area to pump her breast milk.

Joyce Lee, who was hired by the Absecon Police on July 3, 2005, filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination and retaliation. She claimed that upon returning from maternity leave in April 2019, she requested a private area away from male officers to pump breast milk. She was allowed to use a storage room and put up a sign to prevent others from entering. However, a male officer walked in while she was pumping, and she was subsequently told she could no longer use the storage room.

As a result, Lee said that she was forced to pump at her desk in the presence of male officers for two months. She objected to the lack of privacy, which led to her being disciplined for frivolous and excessive reasons, according to her lawsuit. She claimed that Police Chief James R. Laughlin, who was named as a defendant in her lawsuit, personally requested her suspension for one infraction.

Lee also alleged that she and other female employees were subjected to inappropriate behavior from male officers in high-ranking positions, such as comments about their appearance and ogling then on surveillance video. These complaints were ignored by the department, according to the lawsuit.

The settlement agreement between Absecon Police and Joyce Lee included a payment of $50,000 and the resolution of two disciplinary charges against her:

  • The first charge, Internal Affairs Case No. I-2020-021907, stemmed from Lee’s handling of a domestic violence incident at Dollar General on New Road on July 28, 2020. According to an Internal Affairs report, Lee failed to take a statement from the victim and neglected to give them a notification form. Additionally, she didn’t check for warrants or secure weapons at the scene.
  • The second charge, Internal Affairs Case No. I-2021-012757, involved Lee’s conduct on June 16, 2021. Lee was charged with diverting from a serious call involving a suicidal man with a shotgun to a lower-priority call of suspicious persons in a vehicle, leaving a less experienced officer in charge of the serious call. Although the department charged Lee with being untruthful in her statements about the incident, the hearing officer dismissed these charges.

Lee agreed to a “Last Chance Agreement” as part of the settlement, which stipulated that she would be automatically terminated if she faced any major disciplinary charges in the following year.

Of the $50,000 settlement, $35,000 went to Lee and the remaining $15,000 went to her lawyer. Lee is presently a patrol officer with an annual salary of $105,363.

At the time of Lee’s lawsuit’s filing, it received coverage in the Press of Atlantic City, “Cop sues over breast milk pumping – Absecon police officer sues city about discrimination over breast milk pumping,” July 19, 2021 by Claire Lowe. The suit also prompted a Press of Atlantic City editorial, “Our view: Breastfeeding issue returns in Absecon with lawsuit by police sergeant,” August 5, 2021.

The case is captioned Joyce Lee v. City of Absecon, Docket No. ATL-L-1287-21 and Lee was represented by Sebastian B. Ionno of Pitman. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

None of Lee’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 defendants. All that is known for sure is that the Bridgeton school board or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Lee $50,000 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 [email protected]