The longtime director of New Jersey’s Office of Attorney Ethics is defending a suit claiming he runs the agency like a “boys club” and shows open hostility to women employees, the Law Journal has learned.
The suit, filed earlier this year in Mercer County Superior Court, alleges that Charles Centinaro passed over plaintiff Melissa Urban in favor of a less-qualified male candidate for the post of first assistant ethics counsel. The suit argues Centinaro lacked any legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for refusing to hire her for the job.
In a responsive pleading filed more recently, Centinaro and the OAE have denied her claims that the selection process was discriminatory, and disputed the suit’s other contentions.
The suit alleges that Centinaro routinely helps male attorneys get salaries above the minimum level in their salary range, but refused to give such assistance to Urban when she worked at the OAE. And, according to the suit, Centinaro once told Urban he would have never hired her if he knew what she was like, which she took to mean that he found her too opinionated.
Centinaro regularly made negative comments about Urban’s dress and appearance, and once asked her to bake him a birthday cake, she also alleges in the suit.
“The culture of OAE was biased and discriminatory towards women and operated as a ‘boys club,’” Urban said in the complaint.
Centinaro, in response, said he “has advocated for salary exemptions for OAE employees, where eligible, irrespective of the employee’s gender,” and denied Urban’s allegations that he refused to help her get a higher salary.
He also denied saying that he regretted hiring her, or making comments on her clothing and appearance, or asking Urban to bake him a cake.
“Plaintiff suffered no harassment, discrimination or adverse employment action on the bases of her gender treatment,” the answer said. “Any actions taken by the Defendants with regard to the decision to appoint a First Assistant Ethics Counsel were for legitimate non-discriminatory business reasons.”
The answer also raises numerous defenses, including equitable doctrines.
Urban filed the suit against Centinaro Feb. 21, and the state filed its answer June 11.
Urban’s suit lays out her resume: she received a law degree and a master’s in business administration from Rutgers in 2003. While studying law and business, she held summer associate positions at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Reed Smith, later clerked for U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Peter Walsh of Delaware, and held a staff position at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. From 2005 to 2011, she was an assistant Burlington County prosecutor.
In 2011 she joined the OAE as deputy ethics counsel. In that capacity, she argued cases before the Disciplinary Review Board and the Supreme Court. In January 2015, she joined the Disciplinary Review Board as first assistant counsel.
In November 2016, the OAE posted an opening for the position of first assistant ethics counsel. She interviewed for the job in January 2017 but didn’t get it, according to the documents.
Urban did not name the successful candidate for that job, but Centinaro, in the answer, identifies the hire as Jason Saunders, an internal candidate who previously held the job of fee arbitration coordinator.
Urban’s suit claims she is more qualified than Saunders, has been an attorney longer, has more experience in attorney discipline, and has greater academic accomplishments.
Urban’s suit claimed she contacted a human resources representative to question why she was not picked for the position. She claims Centinaro told the recruiter that Saunders was chosen because of his knowledge of the inner workings of the OAE, but later changed his reason.
Centinaro’s “changing reason for the hiring decision establishes pretext,” Urban claims, though she doesn’t specify what the allegedly revised reasoning was.
Centinaro, in his answer, denies any pretext existed.
Urban filed an internal complaint letter in February 2017 and a more formal internal complaint with the state judiciary in March 2017, according to the documents.
The answer said: “Defendants thoroughly investigated Plaintiff’s complaint(s), which were found to be without merit.”
Urban’s suit includes claims for sex discrimination, in violation of the Law Against Discrimination, against Centinaro and the OAE.
Centinaro took the helm of the OAE in 2009. Before that, he held the position of director of juvenile defense services for the New Jersey Public Defender’s Office, where his service began in 2007. He also worked in private practice, worked as an assistant Hudson County counsel, assistant Hudson County prosecutor and assistant counsel to Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and helped manage the public defender’s regional office for Mercer County. He has an undergraduate degree from Rutgers and a law degree from Brigham Young University.
David Koller, the Philadelphia lawyer representing Urban, declined to comment.
Centinaro did not respond to a message about the case. He is represented by Deputy Attorney General Leonard Spinelli. Representatives for the Attorney General’s Office and the judiciary declined to comment. Saunders also didn’t return a call seeking comment on the case.