NJ Public Works Employee With Phobia of Public Places Gets $400K in Lawsuit
TENAFLY — A borough public works employee who claimed a hostile work environment while struggling with an anxiety disorder has settled his lawsuit against the borough.
Aaron Perelli will receive $400,000 and will be on paid leave until his retirement date of June 30, according to the settlement agreement reached Jan. 24.
In his lawsuit, Perelli said he suffered from agoraphobia, which he said did not allow him to drive long distances to unfamiliar towns or to drive by himself.
The settlement and lawsuit became public Wednesday after it was shared by open-government activist John Paff, who often posts government lawsuits and public records on his website.
As a driver and laborer for the borough, the disorder allowed him to only drive to his hometown of Fort Lee, Tenafly and "certain neighboring towns," which did not cause his condition to be an issue. Perelli said he informed his supervisors about the condition during his employment interview in 2002, with the supervisors agreeing to abide by his conditions.
While most of his work did stay in Tenafly, the lawsuit claimed that rather than working with him to address his conditions, he was "specifically targeted" because of them. From the start of his employment until June 2014, Perelli said he was forced to do assignments out of the borough and threatened with reprimands or termination.
Department of Public Works Foreman Ken Kraus was accused of using abusive and bigoted language toward Perelli and others, such as asking Perelli to "put a f---ing blow-up doll in your front seat."
Kraus also encouraged other employees to isolate themselves from him. As a result, Perelli said this caused "severe panic and anxiety attacks on an almost daily basis."
In addition to his mental condition, Perelli said he also suffered physical problems, including an incident in January 2011 where he fell off a garbage truck driven "by a drunk co-worker," who he said had been driving illegally and at a high rate of speed. Suffering what he termed a "serious back injury," Perelli was forced to miss two months of work to recover.
In the lawsuit, he said his physical issues became another point of contention with his supervisors. On his first day back, he said he was forced to use a jackhammer, which was made more difficult by his back injury. A few months after his injury, Perelli said he was stripped of many of his regular duties and demoted to work in heavy tree labor, which he said put more of a strain on his back than his original work repairing catch basins.
His wife is also named as a plaintiff in the case as Kraus is alleged to have made derogatory comments about her half-Jamaican heritage and race.
Several borough employees were named in the suit for not having taken steps to remedy the issues Perelli faced, as well as for not having a policy to address these issues. The lawsuit claims he was retaliated against for attempting to discuss these issues with superiors above Kraus.
The $400,000 settlement includes legal claims, costs and disbursements, with $250,000 paid by the borough's insurance company. In the resolution approving the settlement, the borough denies any wrongdoing in the matter.
Perelli was represented by Rosemarie Arnold of Fort Lee.