Gay educator wins $800K in Holmdel school lawsuit

Staff Writer

HOLMDEL — A Monmouth County jury has ordered the Holmdel Township Board of Education to pay $800,000 to an openly gay former employee over charges of discrimination and wrongful termination.

Laurie Cancalosi, who worked for the district as an athletic director between 2004 and 2006, filed a complaint against the board in 2008, claiming that she was repeatedly harassed and ultimately fired for being a lesbian.

Following the Oct. 8 decision by a state Superior Court jury, Cancalosi’s attorney R. Armen McOmber said he is glad that more than five years of legal action have ended on a positive note.

“I’m just very pleased that my client was vindicated and the jury shared our view of the case,” he said on Oct. 10. “It was a long road, but we feel that justice was very clearly done.”

Board of Education Attorney Michael Gross declined to comment on the case on Oct. 10, saying the board was awaiting input from its insurance company. Rita Barone, the special attorney who defended the board in the suit, did not return a call seeking comment.

According to the complaint, Cancalosi said school board employees began harassing her after she began a relationship with Cheryl Swider in May 2004, while Swider was employed as principal of Holmdel High School.

Cancalosi said that from March 2005 to August 2006, board employees cultivated a hostile and discriminatory work environment, repeatedly using anti-gay slurs to refer to Cancalosi and Swider. She reported these incidents to the district’s administration, but no effective remedial action was taken, according to her complaint.

In June 2005, a note with highly offensive sexual language was left on Cancalosi’s car. Then-Superintendent of Schools Maureen Flaherty commissioned a handwriting analysis of the note, which “evidently concluded” that the note was written by a board employee.

Cancalosi then filed an affirmative action complaint and criminal charges against the employee, and an independent law firm working on behalf of the board purportedly substantiated Cancalosi’s claims, the complaint reads.

Cancalosi said the harassment increased dramatically after she filed the affirmative action claim. Various employees “constantly” used anti-gay slurs when referring to Cancalosi and Swider and refused to follow instructions from the athletic director, according to the complaint.

On July 1, 2006, the board hired Barbara Duncan as its new superintendent of schools. Cancalosi said a resigning board member told her the new superintendent planned to “go after” Swider because Duncan “did not want a gay principal.”

According to the complaint, Duncan demanded Swider’s resignation on July 14, 2006. Swider refused, and the board terminated her four days later.

A month later, according to the complaint, Cancalosi was made aware of a closed-session meeting during which the school board considered asking for her resignation. Cancalosi said she did not receive notice of the meeting, though state law would have required such notification.

The complaint said that days after the meeting, Cancalosi’s affirmative action report was submitted to the board by the independent law firm, but the board refused to accept the report and failed to implement any of its recommendations.

On Aug. 23, 2006, the board fired Cancalosi on Duncan’s recommendation.

According to the complaint, Cancalosi was “an exemplary employee” who received outstanding evaluations and was reappointed yearly by the board — most recently just two months prior to her termination.

Cancalosi claimed that her firing was retaliatory, and sought damages for being forced to work in “a hostile work environment rife with discrimination.” She also sought compensatory damages, interest, attorney fees and other relief related to the costs of the suit.

As of Oct. 10, it was unclear if the board would appeal the decision. McOmber acknowledged the possibility, but said he believes the jury made the right decision.

“The trial was extremely fair to everyone,” he said.

Cancalosi now serves as health and physical education supervisor for Long Branch Public Schools, where McOmber serves as board attorney.

“I would certainly say she is very happy with her current position,” McOmber said.