Published in the Courier News, Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Judge orders Plainfield to reinstate fired health official
Employee fired on allegations that she was working from home
for another city while on sick leave.
By BRANDON LAUSCH
PLAINFIELD -- A former city health officer stands to win back her job more than a year after she was fired on allegations that she concealed from supervisors that she worked from home for Paterson while on extended sick leave from Plainfield.
Jadwiga Warwas, who appealed her Sept. 11, 2006, firing for insubordination and conduct unbecoming a public employee, won over a state Office of Administrative Law judge who dismissed the charges against her and ordered Plainfield to reinstate Warwas to her position with full back pay, benefits, pension rights and legal fees.
A health officer in Plainfield earns around $83,700, city administrators say.
"Indeed, there is nothing about Dr. Warwas' work from home, not in Paterson, at a computer on her own vacation and sick time that violated any rule or regulation governing her employment," Judge James A. Geraghty wrote in his nine-page opinion, decided Dec. 12 and obtained Monday by the Courier News.
Warwas, a licensed physician, began her tenure as Plainfield's health officer on Oct. 1, 2003. During Warwas' time in the Queen City, an employee accused her of harassment for shouting at her -- a claim later dismissed in municipal court -- and she was subject to two minor disciplinary actions, which are pending Warwas' appeals.
She also is involved in a discrimination case against the city and "figures as a witness" in the administrative law challenge of the firings of three former Health Department employees.
"Due to stress from these contentious matters, Dr. Warwas developed peptic ulcers and clinical depression, which resulted in her taking sick leave" last year from late July through early September, according to the ruling. The verdict states that her attending physician certified that Warwas, on five occasions, was restricted to home because of poor health.
While off from work, an anonymous tipster alerted city officials that Warwas was working part time for Paterson. According to the ruling, officials in that city confirmed the claim, notifying their counterparts in Plainfield that Warwas worked from home as a quality assurance coordinator, logging a total of 109 hours as she collected and disseminated information about infectious diseases to Paterson officials and residents.
Warwas testified that when she was hired by Plainfield, she submitted a resume that disclosed her part-time job. Though that document, "for some unexplained reason," was not in Warwas' personnel file nor produced during evidence gathering, the judge wrote that Plainfield officials did not require Warwas to abandon her work for Paterson as a condition of her hiring.
Both Warwas and her attorney, Stephen E. Klausner, did not return messages seeking comment. The special counsel representing Plainfield in the case, David I. Minchello, referred questions to city Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, who said he could not comment on the ruling because he had not seen it.
A sticking point in the case appears to be Warwas' undisputed failure to submit a written request to continue her work for Paterson before beginning sick leave, despite a municipal code at the time of Warwas' hiring that prohibited outside employment without official approval.
Warwas testified that she was not aware of the requirement, "given the fact that the resume itself constituted written disclosure," the ruling states.
Plainfield amended its employee handbook in March 2004 -- well before the flap over Warwas' work -- to allow city employees to seek other work "as long as it does not interfere with their city job responsibilities" or require the use of official property, according to the ruling.
Though the city argued that firing Warwas was justified because of her prior disciplinary record -- including two suspensions for the confusion surrounding her alleged failure to designate an acting health officer while on vacation in summer 2006 -- the judge ruled that "Warwas did not in any sense fail to comply with the Employee Handbook by not submitting a written application for permission to do what she had already disclosed in 2003."
The judge's initial decision will be forwarded to the state Merit System Board for consideration. The five-member panel may adopt, modify or reject the verdict at its Jan. 16 meeting, said Henry Maurer, director of Merit System Practices and Labor Relations for the state Department of Personnel.
If the board backs the judge's verdict, Warwas and city officials would be asked to settle the amount of back pay and other fees. If they can't reach a compromise, Maurer said the board could resolve the issue for them.
Brandon Lausch can be reached at (908) 707-3175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Online story here. Archived here.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.