The city council on Tuesday evening opted to settle a lawsuit involving a former Department of Public Works employee who alleged city officials trampled on his basic freedoms and mistreated him following an on-the-job injury.
Council members approved a settlement of $500,000 to be paid in three installments: first payment of $250,000 to be paid in September 2014; second payment of $125,000 to be paid in September 2015; and the third and final payment to be paid in September 2016, according to city records.
Thomas Pappas, a caretaker and truck driver, suffered a knee injury while on duty on April 16th, 2004, according to court documents. Following the injury, Pappas was receiving workers compensation while undergoing medical treatment.
The city hired a private investigator, Sam Goow, brother of former 2nd Ward councilman Aslon Goow, to observe Pappas. Goow collected video clips of Pappas mowing a lawn and carrying a 24 case soda collection that would be later used against Pappas during a departmental hearing.
While Pappas was receiving medical treatment, on September 17th, 2004, a department employee accompanied by Anthony Vanchari, who was at the time superintendent of the municipal parks, visited his dwelling and handed him a return-to-work notice. Pappas was to return to work within three days despite no medical clearance to do so.
Pappas returned to work only to find himself demoted to a laborer’s position. A month later, Vanchari and Manuel Ojeda, former department director, indefinitely suspended Pappas for “conduct unbecoming of a city employee,” without an explanation, according to the suit.
Pappas appealed to the New Jersey Department of Personnel which resulted in a doctor examining Pappas. The physician stated that Pappas required additional medical treatment, according to the suit.
Merit System Board of the New Jersey Department of Personnel determined following a hearing that the city had suspendered Pappas without a cause. The board ordered Pappas’s reinstatement within ten-days and further stated the city ought to pay restitution. The city ignored the board’s decision.
On April 17th, 2005, the board levied a $10,000 fine against the city and called for Pappas’s reinstatement. The city requested the board to reconsider its decision offering Pappas’ back pay, but no position.
Pappas requested legal assistance from American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local 2272, but his requests were denied.
Anna-Lisa Dopirak, hearing officer, held hearing in May 2005, when Goow’s surveillance videos were used to justify Pappas’ suspension. Videos showed Pappas “doing the simple, non-challenging tasks of mowing his small lawn with a self-propelled lawnmower and moving a package of 24 cans of soda a few feet from his vehicle to the garage,” reads the suit.
In his suit Pappas stated he was a supporter of Martin Barnes, former corrupt city mayor, when Jose “Joey” Torres ran against him. Pappas in 2006 supported a rival of Torres. Torres states his First Amendment rights were violated suggesting the Torres administration retaliated against him.
During the special meeting, council members Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, 2nd Ward; Ruby Cotton, 4th Ward; Kenneth Morris, at-large; William McKoy, 3rd Ward; Kenneth Morris, at-large; and Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward, voted to approve the settlement. Julio Tavarez, 5th Ward, voted against the settlement.
Morris remarked this was the most expensive settlement the city paid out so far.