The former corporate secretary of the Delaware River Port Authority, the bi-state agency that operates four vehicular bridges and the PATCO train line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is suing his former employer in federal court for wrongful termination.
John Lawless, who began his position with the DRPA in May 2004, was told in the spring of 2010 by John Matheussen, the authority’s chairman, that Matheussen and the DRPA’s vice chairman had decided to remove Lawless from his position effective May 2010.
Lawless, the lawsuit claims, was eventually escorted from the DRPA headquarters in Camden, N.J. by two armed DRPA police officers, “in plain view of employees of the DRPA and the public-at-large,” the lawsuit claims.
Lawless alleges in his complaint that his removal came after he filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over what Lawless claimed was unfair treatment related to his admitted alcohol dependency.
The lawsuit states that Lawless sought treatment for his alcohol abuse in late 2009. His alcohol use increased throughout the years since his divorce in 2002, the suit claims, but Lawless primarily used alcohol to get to sleep, and the substance didn’t affect his work, the lawsuit claims.
Nevertheless, superiors at the DRPA learned of his substance abuse treatment after what Lawless claimed was a leak of the information by a colleague who had knowledge of his seeking treatment.
Lawless first complained to human resources about the leaking of his personal health information, but the investigation “yielded no results as to who was responsible for the leak,” the lawsuit states.
Following the complaint to human resources, the agency’s chief executive officer told Lawless he would have to sign a “last chance” agreement, which would have subjected Lawless to periodic drug and/or alcohol testing.
Lawless’ attorney informed the DRPA that the agreement would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the lawsuit states. Lawless had only sought treatment for alcohol abuse, his attorneys argued, and not for illegal drug use.
And the only way Lawless could be subject to periodic alcohol testing, the suit states, is if the DRPA had a reasonable belief that Lawless posed a “direct threat in the absence of periodic testing,” which Lawless argued he didn’t pose.
Still, DRPA lawyers argued that Lawless was subjected to such periodic testing because of his admitted alcoholism, and that the DRPA, as a public agency, has “special obligations to ensure that his [Lawless’] duties are not impaired by his admitted alcohol problems,” the suit states, quoting a portion of a letter from a DRPA lawyer.
Lawless’ attorneys, however, disagreed with the interpretation of DRPA bylaws.
In late April 2010, Lawless filed a second charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that he had been unlawfully retaliated against by the agency, which Lawless claims violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In late August 2010, during a DRPA board meeting, the board, during an executive session, voted to terminate Lawless from the agency.
Lawless, who attended the public portion of the meeting, which was also attended by the press given highly publicized issues with the DRPA at the time, claims in his lawsuit that he was followed by a security officer throughout the duration of the meeting, including into the restroom.
In February of this year, the suit states, Lawless filed a third charge with the EEOC alleging unlawful disability discrimination and retaliation.
The lawsuit contains counts of retaliation, defamation and invasion of privacy.
Through his lawsuit, which was filed Nov. 23 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by Philadelphia attorneys Michael J. Salmanson and Scott B. Goldshaw, Lawless seeks compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $150,000, as well as other legal and equitable relief.
A jury trial is being demanded.
The federal case number is 2:11-cv-07306-JD.