School Board Cleared in Wrongful Termination Case
Jury finds former bus repair vendor liable in case, but judge overturns that decision.
The Parsippany-Troy Hills Board of Education earned a victory Thursday—and it was a close call for former bus mechanic Michael Strumolo—in an employment lawsuit that could have meant more than $1 million in damages.
By a unanimous 6-0 vote Thursday, a Morris County Superior Court jury ruled the school board's decision to not renew the contract of former district transportation director Kathleen Warrick was legitimate. That same jury, however, found Strumolo liable for allegedly trying to convince the BOE to give Warrick the boot.
Judge Donald S. Coburn immediately reversed the jury's ruling against Strumolo, wiping away any alleged liability against the garage owner.
Neither Warrick nor her attorney, Jon Green, responded to Patch's request for comment. No announcement has been made as to whether an appeal will take place.
Warrick, who supervised district transportation for three years, contended that the board fired her in 2008 only because she had a hand in ending Michael Strumolo and Hiawatha Towing's 35-year-long contract to service Parsippany school buses. She accused Strumolo and his company—named in a separate, simultaneous action—of manipulating the board to have her fired as retaliation.
Those offering testimony for the board, among them Superintendent of Schools LeRoy Seitz, BOE member Anthony Mancuso, former member Dr. Louis Valori and former Board Administrator Marlene Wendolowski, said Warrick's employment contract was not renewed for cause. They noted a number of incidents including two in which Warrick reportedly could not be located when needed during bus emergency situations.
Several things were constant in testimony given: Strumolo and Warrick shared a hostile work relationship, Warrick was convinced that Strumolo was not up to the job of servicing the district's buses and Strumolo repeatedly complained about Warrick.
The mechanic, who won his own BOE seat in 2009 and now chairs the transportation committee, admitted that he complained "regularly" about Warrick, at one point asking from the witness stand, "Did I give up my right to express my opinion?"
After nearly a week of testimony and several hours of deliberation, the jury sided unanimously with the school board.
"Dr. Seitz had very legitimate reasons for why he did not recommend to the board the renewal of her contract," said Robert Francis Gold, the attorney representing the school board. "It was for cause. ... Proofs against the board just weren't there."
Anthony Mancuso said he believed Warrick's case against the school board was frivolous.
"There was no connection between board members and the reason for the administration's termination of the employee," he told Patch. "When the facts came out, the jury saw that there was proper cause given as the reasons for termination. ... The administration and the board acted properly in its handling of this employee."
Superintendent Seitz agreed.
"From day one I knew the case against the district was groundless," he said. "The employee in question was terminated for just cause and not because of any comments made by Mr. Strumolo to people in town."
Seitz added the unanimous jury vote against Strumolo showed the panel must have believed that the record demonstrated that the former bus vendor "attempted to use his influence to have the district unjustly terminate an employee."
Attorney Gold said Judge Coburn's move to overturn the jury's finding against Strumolo was the right thing to do.
"There was not a shred of proof of malice," he explained. "Under New Jersey's Conscientious Employee Protection Act, you have to prove torturous interference motivated by malice and intentional wrongdoing. There was not a shred."
He added that he believes the jury misunderstood CEPA's requirements regarding malice and intent and perhaps put too much stock into the antipathy between Strumolo and Warrick.
"The fact that they didn't like one another is not really the issue," Gold said. "There was not any indication that Mr. Strumolo acted with reckless disregard for the truth or, with any intentional wrongdoing, tried to get her fired."
If the judge had allowed the jury's ruling against Strumolo to stand, the garage owner might have been liable for actual and punitive damages in the neighborhood of $1 million or more, according to Seitz and Mancuso.
Lawyer Walter Laufenberg, who represented Strumolo and Hiawatha Towing in the matter, did not respond to a request for comment.
For his part, Strumolo offered only a brief statement.
"I thank God Almighty that this frivolous lawsuit was dismissed."