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$20,000 Settlement for NJ Jail Guard Harassed for Years After Pregnancy

by Joe Watson

Lisa Knowlton and her husband, Ronald--both guards at the Morris County, N.J. jail--settled a workplace harassment suit against the county in August 2008 for $20,000 after years of what Lisa claimed was employment and gender discrimination.

Lisa Knowlton became pregnant in February 2000, almost three years after she began working as a Morris County jail guard. During Lisa’s pregnancy, she was routinely given assignments her counsel claimed were inappropriate while she was expecting. After she returned from maternity leave in February 2001, it was Lisa’s perception that a pattern of harassment and hostility escalated.

In June 2001, she complained of a lunchroom incident involving male guards behaving inappropriately; in September 2001, she alleged that Ralph McGrane, the jail’s chief supervisory officer, called her into his office and directly told her that he was building a case against her. Lisa also claimed that McGrane said that she should hire a lawyer, but that she’d never win. McGrane then allegedly began to scrutinize her use of sick days and personal days to a greater degree than other employees, even though her use of such benefits was within contractual norms. After the meeting with McGrane, Lisa Knowlton filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Lisa alleged that nothing was done to address the misconduct toward her, and for more than two years thereafter, a hostile work environment continued to exist, particularly thanks to McGrane and other supervisors. She complained regularly that she was being treated unfairly.

In February 2004, Lisa was suspended from her position pending a psychological evaluation. She was eventually cleared to return to work and did so after a seven-month absence. Upon her return to work, she claimed that a pattern of contentiousness over numerous issues--particularly sick leave--persisted. On April 14, 2005, she filed a civil action lawsuit in federal court alleging employment discrimination and gender discrimination; disparate treatment because of her involvement with the local police union; adverse employment decisions; illegal suspensions; and retaliatory discipline. Lisa Knowlton also asserted claims under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Act, which safeguards whistleblowers from retaliation. She was joined in the lawsuit by her husband, who asserted a per quod consortium claim.

The county, which was obligated to defend each of the individually-named defendants, opposed all of Lisa Knowlton’s lawsuits, which cost Morris County more than $2 million. See: Knowlton v. The County of Morris, U.S.D.C. (N.J.), Case No. 2:05-CV-01989.

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Related legal case

Knowlton v. The County of Morris