UNION COUNTY, NJ — The county’s payment of $395,000 to settle sexual harassment claims lodged by two of its employees was a “business decision” to avoid a costly trial over claims it staunchly denies, the settlement agreement states.
While the man accused in the lawsuit remains employed by Union County, the freeholders have since updated policies pertaining to workplace discrimination and mandated sensitivity training for its employees — actions that with the #MeToo movement come during heightened awareness of the dangers of sexual harassment.
In October 2018, Susan Pearl and Cynthia Pisino, who work as a social worker supervisor and social worker respectively in the county division of social services, filed the lawsuit claiming sexual harassment and retaliation involving incidences in which Arvin Arneja, an assistant administrator with the county’s division of social Services, is accused of misusing his authority.
“The county asserts that they underwent a cost-benefit analysis, made a business decision, and have agreed to settle this lawsuit in order to avoid the inherent uncertainties with any legal proceeding and the additional legal fees and expenses with continuing this dispute,” the settlement agreement states.
The lawsuit claims Arneja made unwanted comments about 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 lawsuit.
Arneja, when reached at his office Monday and asked about the settlement, denied any wrong-doing.
“If I would have done anything wrong, I would have been fired in five seconds,” he said. “Somebody made something up,” said Arneja, who has worked for the county since September 1993. He also said his lawyers are looking into the claims and the settlement. Arneja said the county never told him it was settling the case.
Arneja remains in his position as the assistant administrative supervisor in the division of social services with a $144,172 annual salary, records show. In the settlement agreement, the county denies the claims Pisino and Pearl lodged against Arneja.
“This agreement represents a compromise of a disputed claim, and any liability, wrongdoing, malfeasance, misfeasance or negligence on the part of the defendant (Union County) is expressly denied,” the settlement states.
Under the settlement approved by the freeholders May 23, Pearl received $170,000, including a check for $113,333.37, and a payment of $56,666.67 to the law firm representing her. Pisino received $225,000, including a check for $150,000 and a payment of $75,000 to the law firm representing her, which is the same firm that represented Pearl.
In their lawsuit, Pearl and Pisino accuse Arenja of making comments about women’s and men’s bodies, among other comments.
“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.”
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 claims that Pearl and Pisino complained about the incident to county authorities, but nobody from the county followed up with the women, which led to an “increasingly hostile work environment” and more incidents of sexual harassment, the ongoing retaliation and the threats of termination. Each of the women suffered severe emotional distress requiring treatment from a mental health professional, the lawsuit states.
Pearl and Pisino declined to comment when asked about the settlement. Their attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
Union County officials said they could not discuss the litigation or say if the county investigated the allegations from the women.
“As has been our long-standing practice, we do not comment on pending or settled litigation,” said Freeholder Chairwoman Bette Jane Kowalski in a statement.
“The county of Union takes allegations of inappropriate behavior in the workplace very seriously,” Kowalski said. “The Freeholder Board has directed the county manager to continue to provide updated comprehensive policies, training and materials designed to educate our employees through the Department of Administrative Services on appropriate workplace behavior in accordance with state and federal guidelines. Additionally, employees are provided with an avenue for reporting perceived violations of any county policies,” Kowalski said.
“Most recently, in late 2018 and early 2019, policies regarding Workplace Discrimination and Harassment & Affirmative Action were updated and formally adopted by the Freeholder Board,” she said. “During this same time frame, mandatory sensitivity training was provided to all county employees.”
Kowalski said these “ongoing, proactive measures are aimed at helping to foster a positive working environment for all Union County employees.”