Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner allegedly “created a toxic culture for women” working in his office, according to a gender discrimination lawsuit filed Thursday by three female staffers.
Tyner allegedly retaliated against the women after they complained about gender-based disparities in pay, and turned back his predecessor’s efforts to appoint women to leadership positions, according the lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Atlantic County. The suit brings claims against Tyner under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act for retaliation, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination for discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
The plaintiffs are long-serving and high-ranking veterans of the office who were demoted or let go under Tyner’s watch. Donna Fetzer rose to the position of deputy first assistant prosecutor before Tyner demoted her in 2017 and cut her pay.
Heather McManus was the lieutenant of investigators and was in line for a promotion to captain until Tyner eliminated that position when it became open. That allegedly allowed Tyner to exclude McManus, the only female in the running for the position, the suit claims. McManus claims she was forced to retire in 2017.
And Diane Ruberton, the first assistant prosecutor, was demoted by Tyner in 2017 to deputy first assistant prosecutor and replaced by a man, the lawsuit claims. Ruberton claims she was fired by Tyner in June 2018 for complaining about gender inequities in compensation and other gender discrimination.
Tyner, appointed to the post by Gov. Chris Christie, was confirmed to the job in March 2017 after serving as a Superior Court judge from 2014 to 2017. He was also an administrative law judge from 2012 to 2014. He was in Parker McCay’s Atlantic City office from 2006 to 2012, and was with Fox Rothschild in Atlantic City in 1999 to 2006. He was with Cooper Levenson in Atlantic City from 1998 to 1999.
During his time in private practice, Tyner focused primarily on real estate development; land use planning and zoning; municipal, labor and employment law; and casino regulatory law. He is a graduate of Widener University School of Law and Howard University.
Besides Tyner, the suit includes assistant prosecutors Cary Shill and Mario Formica as defendants, as well as the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and Atlantic County.
The suit says Tyner demoted several high-ranking women, including some of the plaintiffs, but did not demote any men. In addition, Tyner allegedly gave pay raises to male employees but not women, and provided lower starting salaries to women than to men in similar jobs, the suit says.
Tyner’s predecessor, James McClain, while serving as first assistant prosecutor from 2010 to 2012, and as acting prosecutor from 2012 to 2016, sought to appoint qualified women to leadership positions in the agency.
McClain ensured that a review board that evaluated candidates for promotions to the position of detective included at least one woman, the lawsuit claims. Tyner eliminated that review board procedure.
In addition, Tyner allegedly sabotaged an investigation into gender discrimination in the prosecutor’s office that was commissioned by Atlantic County. Some witnesses who were interviewed by a retired judge hired to conduct the investigation were afraid to speak honestly, the suit says. The suit did not name the retired judge, but published accounts identified him as Michael Donio. The investigation concluded there was no discrimination in the prosecutor’s office, the suit said.
Tyner knew who was being interviewed, and the questioning took place in close proximity to Tyner, according to the lawsuit. In one instance, Tyner allegedly interrupted the judge’s interview of a female witness, and tainted the investigation by contacting other witnesses before they met with the judge.
The suit goes on to say Tyner sold his home to his father-in-law, Herbert Milan, for $425,000, far more than its assessed value of $269,000, in March 2006. Six months later, Milan sold the house back to Tyner for $1, the suit claims. McManus and Ruberton reported that information to the FBI, prompting Tyner to refuse to include them in discussions and decisions on the cases they supervised.
The plaintiffs are represented by Michelle Douglass of Douglass Law Group and Philip Burnham II of Burnham Law Group, both in Somers Point.
“It is beyond ironic that Damon Tyner is sworn to uphold and enforce the laws of New Jersey and yet, as we allege in our complaint, Tyner has acted in a way that shows a clear disregard for the rule of law,” Douglass said in a statement. “As we allege in the complaint, when he was challenged on equal pay issues and his own misconduct, he did everything in his power to strike back at these women, including unlawfully firing one of them.”
In a statement about the suit, Tyner said: “It is apparent that the plaintiffs are living in an alternative universe. The very same conduct they accuse me and the members of my administration of committing was actually carried out by them and others during their brief, ineffective period of leadership of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office. I am disappointed that this has drawn attention away from all of the important work that the women and men of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office accomplish on a daily basis. In 2019, we look forward to continuing to fight the scourge of the opioid epidemic, human trafficking, sexual assaults and violent crime.”
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, when asked if the lawsuit had merit, said “it’s not for me to decide whether there’s merit. I happen to like the prosecutor.” But he added the case would be costly to the county, even if the plaintiffs recover only $1, because of fee-shifting provisions in the state statutes cited in the case.