On July 2, 2021, the Township of Eagleswood (Ocean County) agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a Department of Public Works employee who said that he was forced out of his job for complaining to a state agency about the Township’s recycling truck’s braking systems not working.

In his lawsuit, Michael Shaw who resides in Little Egg Harbor and who starting working for the Eagleswood Public Works Department in 2015, claimed that he frequently complained about the safety of the Township’s recycling truck. According to the lawsuit, Shaw, beginning in 2016, starting complaining to his immediate supervisor, Richard Lombardo, about the truck’s braking and hydraulic systems not working “on a weekly basis.” He also said he complained that the steps of the truck were broken and that the truck hadn’t been inspected in many years. Despite Shaw’s complaints, no action was reportedly taken to repair the truck.

On January 25, 2017, the truck crashed into and damaged two homes because, Shaw alleged, the emergency parking brake failed. The State Police Crash Report shows that the truck, described as a 2014 Sterling, License Plate MG79841, crashed into two homes on Dock Road. According to the report, Shaw had told the Trooper that he had placed the truck in park and “did not know why it would have rolled forward.”

Shaw claimed that even after the crash, his complaints to Lombardo and to Mayor Michael J. Pasternak failed to result in any action to repair the truck.

Shaw said he then filed a Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) complaint which resulted in an investigation. According to the lawsuit, a PEOSH inspection found that “the recycling truck had not been inspected for 10 years.” (Note: This allegation conflicts with the Crash Report which stated that the truck was a 2014 model. Note below that the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s March 6, 2017 violation notice claimed that the truck was a 2007 model.)

According to the lawsuit, Lombardo “detained” Shaw and his co-workers in a room and demanded to know which one of them filed the PEOSH complaint. When Shaw admitted that he had asked for the investigation, he claimed that Lombardo “very aggressively confronted” him in front of the other employees.

Shaw claimed that immediately after his confrontation with Lombardo, his work schedule was changed from Monday through Friday to Wednesday through Sunday. According to the lawsuit, this change adversely affected Shaw because he had a subcontracting business that he operated on the weekends.

He said that he was harassed on a near daily basis. Shaw claimed that Cindy
Maresca, the Eagleswood Tax Clerk, ordered Lombardo, pursuant to Mayor Pasternak’s request, to assign him “the worst possible jobs, with little or no help.” After this alleged directive, Shaw said that he was forced to climb ladders in stiff winds, wire-brush the entire recycling truck by hand and spread a load of mulch over a town playground with no help. According to the lawsuit, when a co-worker attempted to help Shaw spread the mulch, Deputy Mayor Rivas (presumably Debra A. Rivas) “came out of the Town Hall building, yelled at the co-worker and instructed that co-worker not to help Shaw spread the mulch across the playground.”

When he was unable to complete what he considered impossible tasks, Shaw claimed he was written up for disciplinary violations. He claimed that the alleged retaliation caused him to be constructively discharged on December 6, 2017.

According to the Township’s response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, the Township was cited for safety violations by way of notices dated May 4, 2016 and March 6, 2017. The latter notice charged that “[t]here was no documentation available at the time of inspection to verify that [the 2007 Sterling Mobile Compactor Truck, License Plate MG 79841] was suitably inspected to ensure safe operation. Additionally, defects were observed including damage to the right rear riding step and an improperly secured rear view minor.” The notice, which characterized the violation as “serious,” also commented that “[o]n the day of inspection, the above referenced vehicle was observed to have a damaged driver’s side door panel that was not providing a secure mounting surface for the driver’s side mirror. In addition, a broken leaf spring suspension clip was observed in the area of the passenger’s side front axle. A FMCSR inspection sticker was observed in the driver’s compartment indicating the most recent inspection was performed in March of 2008.”

The May 4, 2016 violation notices, which were all later abated, charged Eagleswood with a variety of other, unrelated, violations including having unsecured ladders stored vertically against walls, a suspended load being left unattended and unsupported, a live electrical wire not firmly secured to the wall, a flexible electrical extension cord being used with a splice and a receptacle subject to water not being protected by a ground-fault interrupt.

According to the Township’s response to another OPRA request, Lombardo, who began working for Eagleswood on August 10, 2005 resigned on August 31, 2020. He earned $50,863.21 in 2020 for the eight-month period that year during which he was employed. The same response disclosed that Shaw resigned on December 11, 2017 and earned $15 per hour as a laborer.

Shaw’s wife, Donna Shaw, also joined as a plaintiff in the lawsuit claiming that she lost the “services, society and consortium of her husband.” Of the $300,000, the Shaw received $177,750 and his attorney received $122,250 according to the settlement agreement.

The case is captioned Shaw v. Township of Eagleswood, et al, Ocean County Superior Court Docket No. OCN-L-2310-18 and Shaw’s attorney was Christopher R. Shea of Toms River. The lawsuit and the settlement are on-line here.

None of Shaw’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants. All that is known for sure is that Eagleswood or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Shaw $300,000 than take the matter to trial. This is the problem when cases resolve before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to paff@pobox.com