Deena Yellin, Staff Writer, @deenayellin Published 3:16 p.m. ET Feb. 16, 2017 | Updated 9:04 p.m. ET Feb. 16, 2017
Tenafly has agreed to pay $400,000 to a Department of Public Works employee who claimed in a 2014 lawsuit that he was subjected to an abusive work environment.
DPW driver Aaron Perelli will be on leave until he retires in June, said his attorney, Rosemarie Arnold of Fort Lee.
Arnold said she had been looking forward to trying the case and “exposing all the disgracefulness that happened to my client.” However, things changed after a discussion with Tenafly officials.
“The monetary settlement was very fair,” Arnold said in a telephone interview. “There was a valid reason not to go to trial.”
In his 2014 lawsuit against the borough, the DPW and several Tenafly employees, Perelli of Fort Lee asserted that he was discriminated against because of his disability and that a hostile workplace atmosphere led him to have panic attacks.
Tenafly Councilman Mark Zinna said the incident stems from a situation in which “we had two people who did not get along. Words were exchanged. One of the parties decided to hire a lawyer and the other party is protected by his union contract. We made a business decision to settle this case. We wanted to reach an amicable solution with the lowest risk possible. Unfortunately, the taxpayers have to foot the bill.”
Perelli was hired by the DPW in 2002, and at that time he informed the borough that he suffered from agoraphobia, a psychological disability which prevented him from driving to unfamiliar towns and driving long distances by himself. Doing so, he said, would bring on anxiety and panic attacks.
However, despite an agreement that his driving duties would be limited to Tenafly and the surrounding area, his supervisors targeted him for having a disability, forcing him to perform out-of-town assignments and threatening him with job loss unless he did so, the lawsuit stated.
The suit claims that DPW foreman Ken Kraus harassed him with obscene language for having a disability. Kraus engaged in a “severe and pervasive pattern of mentally abusive, hostile and offensive behavior” directed at Perelli “for having a physical disability,” said the suit, adding that such behavior constitutes disability discrimination.
Kraus frequently threatened him and used abusive and biased language toward Perelli and his wife, who is half Jamaican, according to the suit.
Kraus is still employed by the DPW. He did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
The lawsuit also claims Perelli continued to be assigned strenuous work following a serious back injury after he was thrown off a garbage truck driven by a drunken co-worker.
As a result of such experiences, Perelli will “continue to sustain severe pain, suffering and permanent injuries including physical health issues, several emotional distress, alarm, humiliation and anxiety,” and he will have to spend significant amounts of money for treatment, said the suit.
Zinna stated that Kraus has not had trouble getting along with anyone else and the DPW works efficiently. “They shovel the snow. They pick up the leaves.They clean out the storm drains. They do everything they are supposed to do and they all get along,” he said. “I don’t know of any other incidents where this sort of thing has happened.”