A State Police recruit says she was forced to drop out after 13 weeks of training after enduring her male instructor's endless sexual harassment, which included unwanted hand touching and a gift of dark chocolate.

The 28-year-old Bass River resident says in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court that Trooper Stephen Spitaleri attempted to use his position of authority to obtain personal information about her. The lawsuit says Spitaleri's comments and unwanted attention increased her stress level and took her concentration away from being at what is considered one of the hardest police academies in the country.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday by Toms River attorney Robert Fuggi.

State Police Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Flynn, a spokesman for the State Police, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. He said that Spitaleri's status is "active."

Spitaleri could not be reached for comment on Friday.

According to public records Spitaleri had been with the department since June 2008 and earns a base salary of $81,840.

The recruit began at the State Police Academy in Sea Girt in January.

The lawsuit says Spitaleri attempted to isolate her from the rest of the by calling her to the back of the classroom as an excuse to flirt and cause her to miss instructional time.

He also began referring to the woman as his "secretary" and assigned her tasks included alphabetizing paperwork and recording the serial numbers of handguns given to recruits, the lawsuit says. Other recruits noticed that they were often together and referred to Spitaleri as her "husband," which she took as a suggestion other recruits thought they were in a sexual relationship, according to the complaint

The lawsuit says Spitaleri told the woman that he and his wife were getting a divorce.

The woman says she tried to keep her responses short and professional and told Spitaleri that the only thing she wanted to accomplish at the academy was to graduate. The lawsuit says Spitaleri told her: "You're all business. But it's OK because I like that."

The lawsuit also says accuses Spitaleri of:

  • Bringing her a piece of dark chocolate after learning it was her favorite candy. It is against academy policy to accept gifts, which placed the woman in the uncomfortable position of choosing between breaking the rules or disrespecting her instructor.
  • Telling the plaintiff that he had stopped by her room hoping to "catch you with your hair down. So far I'm zero for whatever" and "no one has ever made me feel like this."
  • Asking if she thought a 35-year-old was too old for a 29-year-old.
  • Asking the woman several times if she would report him for his behavior and whether she thought he was a "scumbag."
  • Telling her that if she applied to work at Troop B, he could be her "coach" and could get her a position.
  • Offering to give her a private lesson on frisking a suspect.
  • Touching her hands while he "leered" at her.

According to the complaint, the woman felt increasingly nervous about comments from Spitaleri. She would run their conversations through her head and could not sleep, according to the affidavit.

She said that another instructor had noted his behavior and thought "something wasn't right" but did not take any action to stop it.

She even thought Spitaleri was setting her up in a "test of her integrity," and eventually began hiding in the bathroom to avoid him. The plaintiff quit the Academy on April 29 when she felt the hostile work environment made it "too stressful and overwhelming" for her to continue, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit against the State Police and the state seeks an unspecified amount of damages and attorneys fees.

The woman is represented by Robert Fuggi, of Toms River.

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