N. Branford worker sues town in dispute

Monday, January 12, 2009 6:28 AM EST
By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

NORTH BRANFORD — A Public Works Department employee is suing the town for what he claims was retaliation after he complained about the behavior of his co-workers, according to a federal lawsuit.

John Lenox, a lead man for the department, claims that he was subjected to harassment after he reported other employees were conducting personal business on town time and “were engaging in racially and sexually offensive conduct,” including “the donning of a white Ku Klux Klan hood” inside a public works building.

Lenox is also suing Public Works Director Francis Merola and three other public works employees, Mark Barrett, Brian Augur and David Neubig. The suit was filed in Superior Court and moved to federal court.

An attorney for Lenox, Anthony Pantuso, said that he was unable to comment on the suit. Attorney Joseph McQuade, who is representing the town and Merola, and Town Attorney Timothy Yolen declined to comment. David Monastersky, an attorney for defendants Barrett, Augur and Neubig, said that his clients deny the charges contained in the lawsuit.

“There’s more than one side to every story,” Monastersky said. “There was maybe some swearing going on back and forth between everyone involved, including Mr. Lenox, but cursing in my opinion does not rise to the level that it becomes actionable.”

Messages left for Merola and the other defendants at the Public Works Department were not returned. Lenox did not return a call for comment.

A judge has set Feb. 10 for a settlement conference in the case. Monastersky and McQuade have moved to dismiss portions of the claims against their clients, but a judge has not ruled on the motions.

In the lawsuit, Lenox alleges that his co-workers — “including but not limited to defendants Barrett, Augur and Neubig” — were using time “on the clock” for personal business, taking long breaks and punching time cards for other people. He also says employees used racial epithets, and someone put on a “Ku Klux Klan” hood on one occasion.

Monastersky said he could not comment on the specific allegations of misconduct.

After he complained to Merola several times between August 2005 and last February, the defendants allegedly “subjected Lenox to a campaign of harassment and retaliation for having raised these issues,” the lawsuit says. The allegations include tampering with equipment he was using, threatening him, destroying his personal belongings and “stapling advertisements for homosexual escort services” to his desk.

The lawsuit also alleges that Merola did not take action regarding the complaints and says that Lenox went on medical leave last February “as a result of the mental and emotional stress caused by the campaign of harassment and retaliation against him.”

Lenox is still employed by the town and has returned to work, his attorney said. According to the lawsuit, officials rejected his request for a transfer to a different job within the town. Town Attorney Richard Branigan also declined to comment on the situation.

The lawsuit claims the defendants’ actions violated Lenox’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and the First Article of the Connecticut Constitution, and that he suffered “economic losses, mental anguish, emotional distress and humiliation.” He is seeking compensatory damages of back pay and lost benefits, as well as damages “for emotional distress and for injury to personal and professional reputation.”

A pre-settlement hearing was held by telephone Dec. 17 and the next action scheduled in the suit is the settlement hearing on Feb. 10.

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