N.J. pays millions in sex harassment cases
Soon after joining New Jersey's corrections officer academy, Gina Marie DiPasquale was taken aback by what she saw as blatant harassment of female trainees.
DiPasquale, an instructor at the Sea Girt academy, complained to her superiors about sexually offensive cadences used in training, verbal obscenities, inappropriate touching of female trainees by male instructors and other issues, according to court documents.
As a result, she was called a "psycho-b---" and "snitch" by co-workers. She was also subject to on-the-job retaliation, sex and gender discrimination, sexual harassment and a hostile work environment, according to court documents.
Fed up, she filed suit against the state in 2005 and resigned. Last year, she agreed to accept $415,000 from the state to settle the case. As part of the settlement, the state admitted no liability on behalf of its employees.
It is not unusual for a civil case to take several years to reach a conclusion.
DiPasquale, who is now a senior corrections officer at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, could not be reached for comment. According to the settlement, DiPasquale agreed not to seek work at the academy again, but there was no other bar against state employment.
Two decades after it became a hot-button issue in New Jersey and the nation, sexual harassment remains very much alive within state government, an Asbury Park Pressinvestigation found.
Despite millions of dollars spent in settlements, state agencies declined to discuss any disciplinary actions that may have been taken against alleged harassers. The Department of Corrections, for example, does not comment on lawsuits, and disciplinary action is not public information, spokeswoman Deirdre Fedkenheuer said.
The agency takes all equal-employment issues seriously, "places a high priority on training and prevention, and the department will take remedial action when appropriate," she said in an email.
Many of the state employees and supervisors named in lawsuits remained on the job as of this summer or have retired with lucrative pensions.
John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, lamented what he sees as a lack of transparency in government sexual harassment cases.
"My main problem is there doesn't appear to be any ramifications in many cases," with employees being disciplined, he said.
In its investigation, the Press found that:
• State employees filed 913 sexual harassment complaints with state agencies from 2006 through Sept. 12, according to New Jersey Civil Service Commission data. The number of complaints has been fairly steady, ranging from 125 in 2006 to 168 in 2008 to 137 last year. Seventy-eight complaints were filed this year, as of Sept. 12. Overall, a third of the complaints have been deemed valid by the state.
• State employees who sued alleging sexual harassment reached 27 settlements totaling $3.9 million in taxpayer dollars from 2006 until late June, according state and court records. Employees' lawsuits often alleged that harassment goes unchecked for years, but settlements admit no liability.
• Most of the settlements, ironically, involved alleged harassment by employees of agencies entrusted to enforce the laws. They include the state Department of Law and Public Safety, which includes the State Police and Juvenile Justice Commission. The department had four settlements totaling $1 million — No. 1 in terms of dollars.
Other agencies included the state Department of Corrections, the state courts, including the Office of Attorney Ethics and Juvenile Intensive Supervision Program, NJ Transit and the state departments of human services and transportation.
Settlements averaged about $145,000 apiece. Nine were for at least $200,000.
Lee Moore, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office, said the state Law and Public Safety Department has a unit that is "proactive in investigating discrimination complaints and training employees."
Appropriate action is taken, such as a written reprimand, demotion, suspension or termination, if a sexual harassment complaint or alleged discrimination is verified, Moore said in an email. He declined to talk about individual cases.
As sexual harassment complaints within state government have risen by nearly 10 percent since 2006, the number of allegations across the country have dropped by 5.5 percent to 11,364, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which tracks complaints in the private and public sectors. The number of allegations filed by males increased from 15.4 percent to 16.3 percent, according to EEOC figures.
Under federal and state law and court decisions, sexual harassment in the workplace has been illegal for decades.
Sexual harassment can increase the risk of developing anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2011 scientific study. It also can weaken self-esteem, self-confidence and psychological well-being.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment is when an employer demands sexual activity as a condition of employment or advancement, according to the state Division on Civil Rights.
Sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment is when an employee endures sexual, abusive or offensive behavior because of her or his gender, according to the division. Harassment does not have to be sexual in nature or involve physical contact.
Barbara A. Lee, a lawyer and professor of human resource management at Rutgers' School of Management and Labor Relations, said, "There's a very wide range of behavior, ranging from verbal to physical."
In 1993, then-Gov. James J. Florio unveiled New Jersey's first policy on sexual harassment, shortly after a special panel and the state Supreme Court weighed in on the issue.
All of the state's approximately 74,000 employees are required to take training courses aimed at preventing sexual harassment, according to Peter J. Lyden III, spokesman for the New Jersey Civil Service Commission.
One of the Garden State's best-known sexual harassment cases involved Garabed "Chuck" Haytaian, the former state Assembly speaker and state GOP chairman who retired from state politics in 2001. A female legislative staffer sued Haytaian and the state in 1996, alleging that he kissed and fondled her several times in 1994 and 1995.
Haytaian vigorously denied the allegations and the state eventually reached a settlement that paid the staffer $175,000. The state also picked up the nearly $170,000 legal tab to defend Haytaian.
Several years ago, Monmouth County secretly settled a sexual harassment complaint from a county traffic engineer for $470,000. The state Supreme Court ordered the county to unveil the settlement after the Asbury Park Press and a citizen sued to make it public.
This month, three female Municipal Court employees in Howell sued the township and the former court administrator, alleging sexual harassment and discrimination. The township has denied the claims.
Working at NJ Transit was hellish for Oliver Carcano, according to his lawsuit.
The former transit agency electrician alleged that he was the victim of relentless sexual and racial harassment from 2000 to 2007, when he was forced to resign. Colleagues often made crude comments such as: "I hear you are a psycho" followed by an unprintable sexual comment.
"You look like you have AIDS," according to his lawsuit against the agency.
Rampant graffiti on bathroom walls, stalls, doors and other spots made sexually explicit statements about him, the lawsuit alleged. NJ Transit did nothing to eliminate the hostile work environment for Carcano, a resident of Wood-Ridge in Bergen County, as well as others, a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the lawsuit alleged.
NJ Transit denied Carcano's allegations, saying it had a written policy against sexual harassment and/or discrimination that was enforced.
Still, the state settled the lawsuit last year, giving $265,000 to Carcano. Some of the men named in the lawsuit were still working for the agency as of June 30, with several making nearly $100,000 a year or more, according to state records.
NJ Transit spokesman John Durso Jr. said Carcano's employment ended in August 2007 and the case was settled in August 2011. The agency declined further comment because it does not comment on personnel-related matters, Durso said in an email.
Carcano could not be reached for comment.
Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, said he typically learns about sexual harassment lawsuits only after they've been settled. Very rarely do the cases go to trial, said Paff, who has sued to gain access to public records.
Lee, the Rutgers professor of human resource management, said a settlement doesn't necessarily indicate that an employer or university would have lost the case.
"It just suggests that they wanted to make the lawsuit go away and were willing to pay some money for that," she said. "I think we're always going to have friskiness, if you want to put it like that, in the workplace. I think people will always be people, but that doesn't mean that they can't be required to behave professionally, at least when they're at work."
Ann K. Buchholtz, professor of leadership and ethics and research director at the Institute for Ethical Leadership at Rutgers Business School, said, "anytime that people interact with other people, like the workplace or a managerial setting, problems are going to arise, and, unfortunately, sexual harassment has not gone away."
The bottom line is people should treat other people with respect, according to Buchholtz, who has co-authored a textbook that discusses sexual harassment.
"Unfortunately, they need to be told how one does that. It's something about which we need to stay vigilant and aware," she said. "We can't stop caring about this issue because it's so important." SOURCE