The drawn-out legal battle involving Mayor Michael Gonnelli, his wife Linda Gonnelli, and the town of Secaucus has finally been settled, according to a town insurer.
A separate claim filed by Linda Gonnelli is still pending in Worker’s Compensation Court.
Just days after Gonnelli was elected as mayor, the town agreed to pay the couple tens of thousands of dollars to settle a 2005 harassment suit the two filed against ex-Town Administrator Anthony Iacono and former Mayor Dennis Elwell.
Despite reaching this agreement 16 months ago, however, the deal was apparently not finalized until the end of last year.
Under the settlement agreement, Michael Gonnelli was awarded $165,000, while his wife received a dollar, according to the Suburban Essex Municipal Joint Insurance Fund (JIF). As is typical in settlements of this nature, the town of Secaucus, its employees, and former employees admitted to no wrongdoing or liability.
“The town’s insurance company felt it was in everyone’s interest to end this matter.” – David Drumeler
“The town’s insurance company felt it was in everyone’s interest to end this matter and felt that the best way to do that was to offer a settlement, as they do in a number of cases,” said current Town Administrator David Drumeler. “A settlement was reached between the parties. This concludes this issue and puts it behind us.”
Mayor Gonnelli said last week that he and his wife are barred from discussing details of the matter, as part of the settlement.
He instead referred most questions to their attorney, Jim Patterson, who did not return several phone calls.
Suit alleged harassment, retaliation
The settlement stems from a 2005 civil lawsuit the Gonnellis filed in U.S. District Court against Elwell and Iacono.
During the timeframe covered by the suit, Linda Gonnelli was Iacono’s administrative assistant. Michael Gonnelli worked for the town as the superintendent of the Department of Public Works (DPW) and was an unpaid commissioner for the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), a state agency that controls 88 percent of the zoning in Secaucus.
According to the lawsuit, Elwell and Iacono allegedly retaliated against the Gonnellis after Michael Gonnelli, acting as an NJMC commissioner, voted against Walmart’s bid to build a gas station in town.
The alleged harassment took several forms, according to the couple’s lawsuit. In court documents, Michael Gonnelli alleged that some of his DPW duties were restricted and he was falsely accused and written up after disputes with other employees. In addition, he maintained that Elwell and Iacono leaked confidential personnel information about his prospective DPW retirement package to the media.
Court documents also state that Iacono transferred Linda Gonnelli to the police records room, where she was allegedly subjected to further harassment. The Gonnellis claimed that Linda Gonnelli was forced to endure a hostile work environment where she was subjected to “pervasive offensive behavior by her supervisor” who, the suit alleged, repeatedly made racist and sexist remarks and other derogatory statements.
The suit claimed that although Linda Gonnelli complained about her work environment, there was no investigation of these charges and Iacono allegedly “encouraged the continued abuse of Mrs. Gonnelli by her supervisor.”
The suit further stated that, “Defendants Iacono and Elwell aided and abetted said discrimination and retaliation and are, therefore, individually liable under [the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination].”
Although not specifically detailed in the couple’s lawsuit, at the time of the alleged harassment, Michael Gonnelli was known to be considering a 2006 campaign for Town Council. It was also known that Gonnelli, an Independent, would likely run a slate of council candidates to challenge a ticket backed by Elwell, a Democrat.
Settlement complicated by mayor’s election
The political landscape in Secaucus shifted quickly even as the Gonnellis’ harassment case inched along in U.S. District Court. The political developments of 2009 appeared to have forced the settlement offer.
Gonnelli successfully won a council seat in 2006, and was gearing up for a November 2009 mayoral race against Elwell.
But after Elwell’s arrest on corruption charges that summer, the four-term mayor resigned from office and pulled out of the fall election. As the only remaining candidate for mayor on the ballot, Gonnelli became the heir apparent to the seat and the JIF quickly moved to settle the 2005 harassment case.
Although it was not a major issue in the fall 2009 election, some voters questioned whether the lingering lawsuit would constitute a conflict of interest for Gonnelli if his suit against the town continued after his inauguration.
Gonnelli knew an ongoing lawsuit would not look good.
“The only reason I settled my case is because of the position I’m in now,” he said last week. “I did not want to continue to fight against the town that I’m now the mayor of.”
Gonnelli’s inauguration as mayor, Drumeler said, delayed completion of the settlement agreement.
“The settlement had to be reviewed by the attorneys to make sure there was nothing ethically wrong with it,” he said.
The settlement, a third of which went to the Gonnellis’ lawyer, also had to be approved by a federal judge.
Worker’s compensation case moves forward
The settlement of the Gonnellis’ harassment case has, according to a document from the JIF, no bearing on Linda Gonnelli’s ongoing worker’s compensation claim against the town, which is a separate matter.
In that case Linda Gonnelli alleges that her work environment caused her great emotional distress and left her unable to work. When she attempted to receive worker’s compensation, she alleges that the town immediately denied her claim without first having her medical condition assessed by doctor, as is required by law. She maintains that she was forced to take an early retirement and now receives a disability pension.
She is now fighting the town’s denial of her worker’s comp claim in the state’s Worker’s Compensation Court.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.