Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Point Pleasant Beach agrees to pay out $90,000 to settle former water billing clerk's retaliation lawsuit.

An undated and unsigned release recently disclosed by the Borough of Point Pleasant Beach (Ocean County) indicates that the Borough has agreed to pay $90,000 to settle a former borough employee's 2014 retaliation lawsuit against the Borough's administrator, deputy finance officer and tax clerk.  The suit, filed by the Borough's former water and sewer billing clerk, alleged that she was subjected to "a pervasive pattern of adverse employment actions" after reporting that another borough employee falsified water meter readings.

In her suit, Sandra Petersen, who is joined in the lawsuit by her husband Kenneth Petersen, claimed that after discovering in January 2012 that employee Gary McRae "had been falsifying and entering fictitious water meter readings which resulted in [Borough] residents being overbilled and/or under billed for their water/sewer usage," she made a report of her findings to Borough Administrator Christine Riehl and Deputy Finance Officer Kathy Beno.  She claimed that Beno laughed at her report and said "Oh, he's been doing that for years." 

Petersen claimed that she was ridiculed and ostracized by her co-workers and that Riehl, Beno and Tax Clerk Jennifer Coyne "spread vicious and false rumors about Plaintiff having an extramarital affair with the Superintendent of the Department, James Broyles, who had also reported" the alleged fictitious meter readings.  Petersen claimed that she was stripped of her duties, prevented from taking certification courses and was told by the borough clerk that Administrator Riehl "does not want you to advance here."  The lawsuit sets forth a litany Petersen's other claims including being forced to listen to racist and anti-Semitic jokes and being ridiculed for having to use the restroom.  She said that she was "effectively terminated" on May 31, 2013.  The lawsuit was reported by NJ Advance media on June 4, 2014.

The case is captioned Petersen v. Borough of Point Pleasant Beach, et al, Docket No. OCN-L-1404-14 and Petersen's attorney was Rosemarie Arnold of Fort Lee. Case documents are on-line here.

None of lawsuit's allegations have been proven or disproven in court.  Releases typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Point Pleasant Beach or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Petersen $90,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision 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 resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Note: The court marked the case as having settled.  While it is possible that a dispute will arise prior to the release being signed, this rarely happens because the settlement terms have been negotiated and agreed to by all the parties.  Readers who wish to be absolutely sure that this case settled according to the terms stated above should submit an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request for the final, signed released.