A whistleblower lawsuit against Cape May County and Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton was reinstated Wednesday by an appellate court.
Former county purchasing agent Kim Allen alleged Thornton retaliated against her in 2014 by not renewing her contract, after she reported what she believed to be illegal actions taken by his wife and stepson in their county jobs.
A lower court had dismissed the suit, and a three-judge panel reversed that decision in a 2-1 vote and remanded it for further proceedings.
Thornton is running for reelection this year with Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, a one-time ally whom he and the other freeholders on the all-Republican board recently voted to censure.
Hayes is alleged to have engaged in behavior involving conflict of interest and retaliation to help her son, who is a county employee.
A dissent by one of the judges on the appellate panel “gives Cape May County the right to appeal this matter to the New Jersey Supreme Court, and that right will be aggressively pursued,” said county attorney Russell Lichtenstein. “We are overwhelmingly confident that this spurious claim will ultimately be dismissed and will no longer be a burden on the taxpayers of Cape May County.”
If the Supreme Court agrees the case should be reinstated, it will go back to Superior Court for trial, said Allen’s attorney, Sebastian B. Ionno.
The whole process is likely to take years, with the Supreme Court hearing it in about 18 months, Ionno estimated.
Allen alleged in her suit that she engaged in protected behavior before not being reappointed by reporting alleged illegal behavior regarding county contracts or bids by County Counsel and Human Resources Director Jeffrey Lindsay, who is Thornton’s stepson, and county nursing home Administrator Linda Thornton, who is Thornton’s wife.
Allen was provisionally named county purchasing agent in 2006, appointed to purchasing agent in 2008 after obtaining certification, and reappointed three years later, according to the appellate decision.
She was not reappointed in 2014, after Thornton read a law-firm report that included information about Allen’s whistleblowing. But Thornton denied noticing who had made the allegations, according to the decision.
The job of purchasing agent is a political appointment and the county had the right not to renew for poor performance, or if it had another political appointment in mind, Ionno said.
But if the motivating factor is whistleblowing, the employee’s job is protected, Ionno said.