BRIDGEWATER - A former Bridgewater Township police dispatcher who was forced to resign because of a medical condition and later fired as township records clerk will receive $200,000 to settle a lawsuit against the township, according to her lawyer.
The township council on Thursday approved a settlement with Patricia Del Vecchio, who claimed that she had been unfairly terminated, he said. The case reached the state Supreme Court.
"We have mixed feelings," said Somerville-based attorney Brian M. Cige, who represents Del Vecchio. "My client believes she did the right thing in standing up and challenging her being illegally fired by the township.
"But at this point, she wants to get on with her life. Sometimes justice comes easy and sometimes you have to be persistent to get it. This is one of those times where we needed several years to get there."
Township Administrator James Naples didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
Del Vecchio, who suffered from an inflammatory bowel syndrome and anxiety and panic attacks resulting from stress, was terminated from her job in September 2009 for excessive absenteeism, according to court documents.
In her initial trial, Del Vecchio charged that now-retired state Superior Court Judge John Coyle improperly limited the trial testimony of Del Vecchio's physicians about her medical condition.
Del Vecchio's claim of wrongful termination was initially rejected by a Somerset County jury after a 13-day trial. In August 2014, a state appellate court reversed the verdict and ordered a new trial.
Bridgewater then appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.
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Del Vecchio, who was hired as a dispatcher in 1999, held the post until February 2008, when she was asked to resign after refusing to work the midnight shift because of her medical condition, according to court documents. Instead, she took a lower-paying job as a township records clerk.
In 2003, Del Vecchio was diagnosed by Dr. Gary Ciambotti, her gastroenterologist, with inflammatory bowl syndrome. He submitted more than a dozen notes to the township saying that working the midnight shift would worsen her condition, according to court documents.
The township initially agreed but then reconsidered after receiving complaints from Del Vecchio's co-workers. She was then told she would have to work "occasional midnight shifts," according to court documents.
In 2006, Del Vecchio also submitted notes from Dr. Joseph Rochford, a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her as having anxiety and panic attacks as a result of working the midnight shift and it's "absolutely medically necessary" she stop working the shift, according to court records.
As a result, she was not required to work the midnight shift in 2006, 2007 or 2008, which the township said had upset co-workers. She was granted a transfer to the records department in 2008 and was terminated on September 16, 2009 for "neglect of duty and chronic/excessive absenteeism."
Cige argued that Coyle should not have limited Ciambotti's testimony during the trial because he wasn't designated as an expert witness. Following his brief testimony, the jury asked that Ciambotti be asked more questions about the nature of the condition and its treatment.
But Coyle refused the jury's request, saying that Ciambotti had not been called as an "expert witness" and if he gave his opinion his testimony would then be inadmissible.
In the appeal, Cige argued that the judge's limitation made it extremely difficult for him to show that Del Vecchio fell within the class of people protected by the state's Law Against Discrimination. Rochford's testimony was also limited by the judge.
The appeals court agreed with Cige and the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision, saying that "testimony excluded at trial was offered to address a pivotal element of the plaintiff's claims for disability discrimination."
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