UNION, NJ — A former township of Union police officer was awarded more than $355,000 in damages by a federal court jury last week found she was the victim of sex discrimination.
Maryanne Cosimano, Union’s first female officer, filed a complaint in 2013 against the township, Union Police Director Dan Zieser and former township business administrator Frank Bradley after she was denied lifetime health insurance benefits upon her retirement, although her male counterparts were receiving those benefits.
The township had argued that Cosimano, who was employed as a Union police officer from 1990 until her retirement in 2010, fell short of the 25 years of service required to receive lifetime health benefits.
“Despite Cosimano’s stellar work performance and efforts throughout Cosimano’s employment and continuing through retirement, she was treated differently because of her gender,” states the suit.
In 2000, Cosimano was promoted to the Detective Bureau, where she received a pensionable yearly stipend of approximately $3,000. She served as a detective until May 2010, when she was demoted to a patrol officer.
“The decision to transfer Cosimano back to the Patrol Division was made solely by Zieser and Deputy Chief of Police Rick Landolfi, without any input from the captain of the Detective Bureau,” the complaint states.
As a result of the demotion, Cosimano began receiving a patrol officer’s salary and lost her stipend. On June 2, 2010, Cosimano filed a grievance protesting the demotion and the reduction in pay as a violation of the collective negotiations agreement between the township and the PBA Local 69.
Zieser denied Cosimano’s grievance two days later.
According to the suit, when Cosimano asked Zieser about receiving lifetime health insurance benefits, he allegedly told her that she would receive lifetime health benefits paid for by the township upon retirement with 25 years of service credit.
“Zieser did so as a scheme to lead Cosimano to believe she would receive health benefits at Union’s expense upon retirement,” states the suit. “At no time during the conversation did Zieser inform Cosimano or attempt to represent that he does not have authority to determine whether a police officer is entitled to health benefits upon retirement,” the suit continues.
According to the suit, Cosimano purchased enough service credit from the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System to accumulate 25 years of PFRS service credit, and retired soon afterward.
Following Cosimano’s retirement, according to the suit, former Union Human Resources Director Kathleen Green rescinded Cosimano’s receipt of benefits. Green had allegedly made a similar initial decision to deny health benefits to a male police officer, but Bradley and Zieser intervened on his behalf, allegedly reversing Green’s initial determination.
The suit alleges that this male officer retired with full health benefits “at Union’s expense.”
Although Green may have made an initial determination pertaining to Cosimano’s benefits, “Bradley and Zieser condoned it and made the final decision to unlawfully rescind Cosimano’s health benefits subsequent to her retirement,” the suit alleges. “This was the first instance in the history of Union in which a public safety officer had their health benefits either denied upon retirement or rescinded subsequent to retirement.”
The suit claims that the defendants “acted to deprive Cosimano of health benefits as a form of discrimination against Cosimano because she is a woman, and as a form of retaliation because she had previously filed a grievance challenging the removal of her stipend as a result of her transfer/demotion.”
Cosimano’s transfer and demotion eventually induced her to retire, according to the complaint.
A few weeks after Cosimano’s retirement, PBA Local 69 filed an unfair practice charge on Cosimano’s behalf, seeking an order to stop the township from discontinuing Cosimano’s health benefits.
The suit alleges that the defendants “changed their past practice of providing health benefits upon retirement to public safety officers, regardless of their precise ‘service’ upon Cosimano’s retirement.”
David Corrigan, attorney for Cosimano, accused the township of “blatant and long-standing sex discrimination.”
“It is now time for (Union’s) mayor, Suzette Cavadas, to end this litigation,” Corrigan told LocalSource in an April 20 email. “I find it incredible that a female mayor permitted her police director to blatantly discriminate against a dedicated police officer and detective. She can no longer hide behind her well-paid lawyers. It is time for her to end the discrimination and finally do the right thing.”
According to Dan Antonelli, the township attorney, the township is both surprised and disappointed by the jury’s decision.
“The verdict conflicts with the final judgment of the Superior Court of New Jersey upholding an arbitration award that found that Ms. Cosimano was not contractually entitled to lifetime health insurance paid for by the taxpayers of Union at the time she retired,” Antonelli told LocalSource in an April 22 email.
According to Antonelli, prior arbitration of Cosimano’s allegations resulted in in a ruling favorable to the township. After Cosimano appealed the arbitrator’s decision in Superior Court, that court concurred with the arbitrator’s decision that she was not entitled to the health insurance benefits per the terms of her contract.
The federal court jury, however, determined that Cosimano was entitled to benefits and awarded her monetary damages for lost health insurance benefits.
Township Administrator Ronald Manzella told LocalSource that, as a result of the two conflicting court decisions, “the township is considering all of its options, including appealing the decision to the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals.”