Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Monmouth County pays $20,000 to settle whistleblower suit, withdraws firing and allows employee to resign.

On November 29, 2014, the County of Monmouth agreed to pay $20,000 to its Transportation Division's former Operations Manager who sued the County for allegedly firing her after she complained that her supervisor was having her and another employee use County resources to campaign for a Republican Freeholder candidate.

The plaintiff, Jean A. Meroni, served the County's Transportation Division since 1997 and was the Program Coordinator for the Senior Citizen's Area Transportation [SCAT] Program.  According to her complaint, Meroni's employment with the County was smooth until her supervisor, Henry Nicholson, was replaced by new Division Director Kathleen Lodato.

In her complaint, Meroni said that Lodato was "highly politically active" within the Republican Party.  She allegedly had campaign literature in her office and "regularly dropp[ed] the names of Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, 'Tommy' (Republican Freeholder Tom Arnone) and 'Curley' (Republican Freeholder John Curley.)"  Meroni alleged that Lodato "wrongfully and illegally required her assistance with political campaigning for the Republican Party during work hours."  She claimed that on May 25, 2011, Lodato had her and another worker "photocopy Republican campaign literature for Republican Freeholder candidate Gary Rich on the County copier, as well as stuff envelopes for mailing."

Meroni said that she brought her complaints about Lodato to Monmouth County Freeholder Amy Mallet, who, at the time, was the sole Democrat on the Freeholder Board.  She also discussed her complaints with Mallet's confidential aide, Keith Rella, and Human Resources Director Kevin Burke.  County officials were allegedly concerned that Meroni's allegation would start a "political maelstrom." Meroni alleged that Monmouth County Special Counsel Steven W. Kleinman recommended that she "retract her allegations against Ms. Lodato" and eventually told her "that this was her 'last chance' to withdraw her claims."  When she wouldn't retract her claim, Meroni said that County officials "joined Ms. Lodato's campaign of retaliation, seeking to conceal Ms. Lodato's wrongdoing and to focus the negative attention on [Meroni] instead."

Meroni claimed that she was thereafter was stripped of her job duties and was made the subject of "a bogus internal investigation" that clamed that she knew of and participated in a "sick-out" that occurred six months prior. She alleged that she was subjected to a hostile work environment and that Lodato even made her perform "housekeeping tasks, such as cleaning and vacuuming."  On September 15, 2011, a "farcical" disciplinary hearing was held which resulted in her being fired.  Her firing was sustained on appeal after a 15-day hearing before Administrative Law Judge John R. Futey.  Meroni's appeal of her firing to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court was dismissed as part of the settlement.

In addition to the $20,000 payment, the County also agreed to allow Meroni to resign effective August 22, 2011 provided that she never again seeks future County employment.  Any future prospective employers who inquire about Meroni's previous employment with the County will be told that she resigned.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms.  Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.  Meroni and the County also agreed not to disparage or defame each other.

The case is captioned Meroni v. County of Monmouth, Docket No. MON-L-2193-12.  Meroni was represented by Gina Mendola Longarzo of Chatham and Steven A. Varano of Totowa.  Case documents are on-line here: (complaint part 1) (complaint part 2) (settlement agreement).

None of Meroni's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $20,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Monmouth or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Monmouth or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Meroni $20,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.