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Dispatcher’s suit against town dismissed, while claims against chief still pending

A state Supreme Court judge has dismissed a $10 million lawsuit filed by a Riverhead Town police dispatcher, who claimed the town created a “hostile work environment and sexual harassment” at the town police department.

The 13-page decision issued April 26 by state Supreme Court Judge William Ford ordered that Melissa Breitenbach Elco’s lawsuit “is dismissed as to defendants Town of Riverhead,

Riverhead Town Police Department, [Supervisor] Yvette Aguiar in her official and individual capacities.”

The judge, however, did not dismiss charges filed individually against Police Chief David Hegermiller, although the charges against him in his official capacity were dismissed. 

Both sides are claiming victory.

In a statement, Ms. Aguiar said the town has “steadfastly maintained” the lawsuit was without merit.

“We are grateful to the court for its expeditious determination in this matter,” the supervisor said. “We were always confident that we would prevail in this proceeding.”

But Ms. Elco’s attorney, Ron Hariri, sees it differently. 

“We are extremely pleased that the Supreme Court has held that Riverhead’s Police Chief David Hegermiller may be held personally liable for violations of the New York Human Rights Law for a hostile work environment and disparate treatment,” Mr. Hariri said in an email. 

The case, filed in September, involves Ms. Elco, a town police dispatcher, who sued the town claiming that police officer Richard Freeborn and other members of the department harassed her by making “threatening comments, stalking and inappropriate and malicious threats.” 

Ms. Elco and Mr. Freeborn have a child together and have been in a custody dispute, according to court papers. 

The lawsuit alleges that Ms. Elco has faced retaliation by being ostracized and discriminated against in an attempt to intimidate her. 

That has “negatively affected her health, job performance, position and status at the RPD and caused her to suffer severe and unwarranted emotional distress which has detrimentally affected plaintiff’s health and wellbeing,” the summons says.

The April 26 ruling makes no mention of Mr. Freeborn, other than that he is a defendant. 

“It is heartening to see that even during the current challenging times, Judge Ford and the court system continue to serve the people of Suffolk County,” Ms. Aguiar said. “It is entirely inappropriate to waste public resources and attempt to manipulate our justice system in order to accomplish baseless political objectives.”

The judge’s ruling says that “after July 2019, [Ms. Elco] has stated a viable claim concerning a hostile work environment regarding the denial of overtime, loss of interviewing privileges and insurance buyback forms. Thus as regards Hegermiller as her ultimate supervisor, those claims shall remain for now.”

The lawsuit was originally filed without a notice of claim, which is needed before suing a municipality. That was done subsequently. 

“An examination of Ms. Elco has been scheduled for later this month,” Mr. Hariri said in an email, referring to the notice of claim. “We expect to re-institute claims against the Town Defendants in their official capacity after completion of Ms. Elco’s examination.”