County pays nearly $400,000 to settle harassment suit

ELIZABETH, NJ — Two Union County workers who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the county and its Department of Human Services will receive $395,000 in a settlement, as approved at the county Board of Chosen Freeholders’ May 23 meeting.

The freeholders authorized the settlement to be paid to Cynthia Pisino, a county social worker and Susan Pearl, a social worker supervisor for the county, in connection with the lawsuit the two women filed in October 2018.
The county will pay $230,000 and its insurance carrier will cover the rest, according to the agenda.
Freeholders board attorney Robert Barry had no comment when contacted by LocalSource on May 31, but he briefly addressed the subject at the meeting after Garwood resident Bruce Paterson asked about the settlement.

“I don’t intend to make any significant comment relative to the litigation until the matter is completely resolved,” Barry said. “I can say that this was litigation by two employees with allegations relative to workplace harassment.”

Attorney Michael F. O’Connor, who was representing Pearl and Pisano, also did not respond to a request for comment made May 31.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Superior Court, details claims of sexual harassment and negligence from the county. It alleges that Arvin Arneja, an assistant administrator in the Human Services Division of the county’s Social Services Division, 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.

“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.”
Pisino complained to Pearl, her supervisor, that Arneja had been sexually harassing her on a regular basis since early 2017, and Pearl reported the “rampant sexual harassment, discrimination and official misconduct” to higher officials since Arneja is her direct supervisor.

According to the lawsuit, a June 2018 incident prompted Pisino to go to Pearl to report that Arneja was invading Pisino’s personal space.

“Arneja spent several minutes hovering over Pisino’s desk staring at her,” it reads. “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.”

Arneja then allegedly “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.”
Arneja also began going with Pisino to client interviews, including those with victims of domestic violence, according to the lawsuit.

“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.”

The lawsuit additionally states that when Pearl brought her complaints to the highest-level of country government, they were not promptly investigated.

“The county turned a deaf ear to the plaintiffs’ complaints for more than five months. During that period, the officials about whom the plaintiffs had complained continued to harass the plaintiffs with impunity,” the suit reads.
It goes on to state that both Pisino and Pearl were told by county officials that if they weren’t satisfied with their working conditions then the “county would help them leave.”

“The county’s willful indifference to plaintiffs’ 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 reads.

“The ongoing harassment and retaliation against the plaintiffs have caused each of them to develop severe anxiety and depression which require ongoing professional treatment.”

The lawsuit states that during the course of five months, between Feb. 8 and July 25, 2018, no one from the county followed up with Pearl and Pisino on their complaint.

Pearl has been employed with the county since 1993, and Pisino since 1999. The lawsuit also claims that Arneja received a promotion over Pearl because of his gender, although Pearl was better qualified.