ELIZABETH, NJ — Two women whose Union County jobs include providing support to battered women were themselves victimized, according to a lawsuit settlement with the Union County Freeholders.
Last Thursday, the Freeholders authorized the $395,000 settlement to be paid to Cynthia Pisino, a social worker and Susan Pearl, a social worker supervisor for the county, in connection to the sexual harassment lawsuit they filed in 2018. Union County’s insurance carrier is set to pay $230,000 of the settlement, the agenda shows.
The lawsuit filed in Superior Court last October details claims of sexual harassment and retaliation against the County, telling of specific incidences in which Arvin Arneja, an assistant administrator in the Human Services Division of the County’s Social Services Division is accused of misusing his authority. The lawsuit also clamed that County officials allegedly retaliated against the two women who reported his behavior.
“The county’s willful indifference to plaintiff’s complaints is astonishing given the heightened public awareness of the severe emotional harm that victims of unlawful harassment and retaliation suffer following the #metoo movement,” the lawsuit states. “The ongoing harassment and retaliation against the plaintiffs have caused each of them to develop severe anxiety and depression which require ongoing professional treatment.”
With the settlement yet to be formalized Wednesday, the Freeholders’ attorney, Robert Barry, declined to elaborate on the terse comments he gave to the Freeholders. Neither an email nor a phone message left for Michael F. O’Connor, the Manasquan-based attorney representing Pearl and Pisano, were returned Wednesday.
“I don’t intend to make any significant comment relative to the litigation until the matter is completely resolved,” said Barry at the freeholders’ meeting. “I can say that this was … litigation by two employees with allegations relative to workplace harassment.”
The lawsuit claims Arneja made unwanted comments on Pisino’s body and appearance beginning in 2017 when he was promoted to assistant administrator and transferred to the county’s offices in Plainfield. Pisino repeatedly objected to the comments from Arneja, who is two levels of authority above her, but her protests were ignored, according to the litigation.
“In December 2017, Arneja told Pisino not to pursue men based on the size of their genitals but, rather, how much money they had,” the lawsuit states. “Arneja’s disgusting comment shocked, offended and humiliated Pisino.”
According to the complaint, Arneja later began accompanying Pisino on client interviews, including those with victims of domestic violence.
“In January 2018, Arneja told one of Pisino’s domestic violence clients to stop sleeping around,” the lawsuit states. “That remark was an incredibly insensitive comment to make to a battered woman.”
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In a June 2018 incident detailed in the suit, Arneja is accused of invading Pisino’s personal space, something that prompted action from Pearl, who is her supervisor.
“Arneja spent several minutes hovering over Pisino’s desk staring at her,” the lawsuit states. “Pearl was so concerned by Arneja’s stalking behavior that Pearl sent another employee over to intervene. Even after the other employee arrived and began to engage Pisino, Arneja did not leave.”
Instead, Arneja “stretched the length of his body over Pisino’s desk under the pretense of untangling her phone cord. Pisino had no room to back up because of the small size of her cubicle. She was trapped in her seat.”
The lawsuit further claims that a union representative, who said she has a notebook of complaints from other female employees, who had reported being sexually harassed by Arneja, was ordered to “keep quiet.”
After Thursday’s meeting, Barry confirmed that Arneja remains employed by the county. Barry declined to elaborate further. Arneja last year earned $111,932, public records indicate.
In the initial lawsuit, attorneys for Pearl and Pisino said that Barry, when asked about the treatment of the two by their managers, admitted to instructing higher-ups to not respond to their communications.
The lawsuit claims that between Feb. 8 and July 25, 2018, nobody from the county followed up with Pearl and Pisino on their complaint, something that led to an “increasingly hostile work environment” and more incidents of sexual harassment, the ongoing retaliation and the threats of termination caused each plaintiff to develop severe emotional distress requiring treatment from a mental health professional.
“The ongoing harassment, the lack of support from the county, the ongoing retaliation and threats of termination caused each plaintiff to develop severe emotional distress, which required treatment from a mental health professional,” the lawsuit claims.
Read the lawsuit here.
Email Staff Writer Matt Kadosh at email@example.com; Follow him on Twitter: @MattKadosh