Thursday, October 1, 2015

Long Branch secretly pays $500,000 to settle "whistleblower" suit.

On September 21, 2015, the City of Long Branch (Monmouth County) agreed to pay $500,000 to its former Principal Personnel Clerk who claimed that City officials bullied, harassed and ultimately fired her for speaking to a newspaper and for reporting alleged financial impropriety by the City's Chief Financial Officer.

Plaintiff Julie Juliano Acerra's lawsuit has its roots in a November 23, 2003 New York Times article entitled "ON THE JOB; Foiling the Office Bully (With Sand in Your Face)." In that article, Acerra said that after having "enduring threats, foul language, ridicule and unfounded criticism" for five years from Chief Financial Officer Ron Mehlhorn, Sr. and others, "the bullies backed off" after she and her union documented the bullying and caused an internal investigation.

Unfortunately for Acerra, the respite was short-lived.  According to her lawsuit, the New York Times piece, along with Acerra's cooperation with law enforcement regarding an "Operation Bid Rig" investigation, sparked further hostility and retaliation against her.  Her lawsuit made various claims ranging from being followed while driving her car to having files taken from her office.

In 2007, Acerra said that she questioned Melhorn's receipt of what she approximated to be over $200,000 for cashing out over 400 accrued sick days and subsequently learned that Melhorn's office never deducted the 400 sick days from his account despite the pay out.  This caused Acerra, who "felt a serious crime had taken place" to contact law enforcement officials.  She claimed that she was later advised by the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office that the matter was under investigation.

Acerra claimed she was fired on February 4, 2011 and that the firing was mischaracterized as a lay-off for "reasons of economy and efficiency.  She said she was replaced by a younger person.

The case is captioned Acerra, et al v. City of Long Branch et al, Monmouth County Superior Court Docket No. MON-L-1761-11 and the Acerras' attorney was Richard J. Shaklee of McLaughlin Stauffer & Shaklee, PC in Wall.  Case documents are on-line here.  In November 2013, Long Branch offered Acerra $75,001 "exclusive of fees and costs" to settle her lawsuit. That offer was not accepted.

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.

None of Acerra's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $500,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Long Branch or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Long Branch or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Acerra $500,000 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.