A former Brick Township teacher has filed a whistleblower suit against the school district, alleging she was retaliated against for alerting the Ocean County superintendent’s office that she was being ordered to teach classes for which she believed she was not certified. She further alleges in a lawsuit filed earlier this summer that she was discriminated against due to her age, with her replacement having been 15 years her junior. Further, she claims she was offered a contract to teach for the 2022-23 school year, only to have it abruptly nullified.
A full copy of the complaint, and the district’s answer filed in late July, are embedded below this story.
The first count in the complaint filed by former Lanes Mill Elementary School teacher Rene Lazaro alleges the district violated the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, commonly known as the “whistleblower law,” after she brought concerns about an abrupt transfer from one school to another to the office of the Ocean County Executive Superintendent of Schools, telling a person in his office that she was being directed to teach classes for which she did not believe she was certified to instruct.
According to the complaint, which names a slew of district officials and building principals, Lazaro began her position as an autism-specialist teacher at Lanes Mill Elementary School Nov. 15, 2021, when she was told to shadow an experienced teacher. In January 2022, Lazaro alleges in the complaint that school principal Daniel O’Cone told her that the district “hired another autism teacher and he was not sure of what was going to be happening with plaintiff.”
“Either she was getting transferred or they were extending the program,” O’Cone said, allegedly telling Lazaro that he knew nothing about the new hire, “which upset him because, after all, he is the principal.”
The other teacher, the complaint states, was hired before the Christmas break, but Lazaro was never informed by O’Cone “because he didn’t want to ruin her holiday.” O’Cone is alleged to have told Lazaro the transfer was not personal and she had done a good job, but “there is a student over at the middle school who needs you and your help.”
Lazaro, the suit states, found out she was being transferred to Veterans Memorial Middle School not by officials, but by reading the agenda for Jan. 24, 2022 meeting of the Board of Education. She brought her concerns to O’Cone the following day, who replied, “you’ll be fine,” according to the complaint. A saved version of the agenda item appears below. It is surmised the year listed is a typographical error, as this meeting took place in 2022, and the complaint alleges the same date in 2022. The spelling of Lazaro’s last name also appears to be a typographical error.
But upon arrival at VMMS, Lazaro alleged the trouble with certification issues began. She claims to have met with science department supervisor Nicole Pannucci and told her she did not have experience teaching science classes and she was uncomfortable doing so. She replied, allegedly, that teaching subjects in middle school was analogous to teaching them at the elementary level.
“Plaintiff believed this to be inaccurate because a teacher needs to take Praxis in order to teach science in middle school,” the complaint states. After starting at VMMS in early March, Lazaro took her concerns to the county superintendent’s office and spoke to a woman who worked there.
“Plaintiff advised her she was thinking about taking an (sic) teaching position, however she was not certified in 2 of the 3 subjects,” the complaint states. “She said that she can only be ICS [in-class support] in science and math” and that she could not be legally permitted to serve as the “lead teacher” that she was assigned to be at VMMS “which she became pursuant to the transfer.”
Lazaro claims in the complaint that she returned to speak with supervisors in the Brick district and referenced a number of administrative laws that precluded her from being appointed the lead teacher in the classes.
“Plaintiff was then advised by Veterans School Principal Dana Triantafillos that she was being fired effective June 30,” the suit states, at which point she requested a “statement of reasons” for the termination from Superintendent Thomas Farrell, which was never provided. A statement of reasons for such a termination is required under state law.
The complaint then goes on to allege that prior to her termination on June 30, Lazaro was presented with a new contract to be a teacher in the district for the 2022-23 school year by the district’s Human Resources Department.
“Within days of being presented with the new contract for 2022-23 school year, the Human Resources Department voided the contract and advised Plaintiff that she was no longer being offered a position in the District,” the complaint states. “She would be terminated effective on June 30.”
Lazaro said she was told the district was facing “budgetary cutbacks,” however she came to find out she was replaced by a new hire who was 15 years younger than her, prompting her to file a second count in her lawsuit claiming age discrimination.
Finally, making matters worse, Lazaro claims she ran into pension-related issues after her termination.
“After her termination on June 30 from the district, plaintiff was advised by the pension board that all of the contributions to her pension had not been made while she was working in the Brick School District,” the complaint states. “In fact, the District violated Plaintiff’s rights to her pension payments by making false payments to another account not related to Plaintiff’s pension account.”
Lazaro is being represented in the case by attorney John R. Tatulli, of Red Bank. The district is represented by Erin R. Thompson, of Tuckahoe.
In Thompson’s response, filed July 30, the vast majority of the allegations are either denied or asked to be examined through proofs in the discovery process. The district is seeking dismissal of Lazaro’s suit and to be reimbursed attorneys’ fees expended on the matter. The answer states that the defendants “were guilty of no negligence” and ” performed each and every duty and obligation owed to plaintiff.”
The answer also stated Lazao was an “at-will” employee in the district at the time, not subject to tenure policies.
“Assuming an agreement of employment existed between the Plaintiff and the Defendants, which is denied, Plaintiff failed to perform her own duties and obligations as required by said alleged agreement, and, as such, is estopped from presenting this claim,” the answer states. “Plaintiff’s claims of discrimination are barred because Defendants exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any discrimination, and Plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities provided by the Defendants or to otherwise avoid harm.”
The case is being adjudicated by Superior Court Judge Craig L. Wellserson, who has set a 450 day discovery period, which ends Oct. 23, 2024. Lazaro has, through counsel, demanded a jury trial.
Read the Full Complaint:
Read the Full Answer: