After nearly five years of litigation, a jury has ruled in favor of former Town Councilwoman Eileen Fuoco in her lawsuit involving deprivation of privacy, libel, and slander against Mayor Joseph Polisena.
In October 2013, Councilwoman Fuoco filed a complaint in Superior Court against Polisena. According to court documents, Fuoco alleged that at the October 15, 2013 Town Council meeting, Polisena disclosed private information from her personal payroll file to the Council, which included but was not limited to her Social Security number.
The complaint outlined three counts against Polisena. The first stated that as mayor, Polisena has access to the payroll files of all town employees, including elected officials, and that Fuoco expected the information contained in her payroll file to be private. The document stated that Fuoco did not consent or give permission to disclose her personal information, and that the disclosure of her records was intentional and willful, unreasonable, and objectionable. Her suit also alleged that the actions of the mayor were in violation of the Federal Privacy Act.
The second count focused on libel and slander, stating that at the same October 2013 Council meeting, Polisena “made false statements of fact which placed [Fuoco] in a false light before the public,” and that the statements made by the mayor were “intentional, willful, wanton and made in direct disregard for the truth.”
Count three detailed “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” and stated that, as a result of Polisena’s actions, Fuoco “suffered and continues to suffer emotional distress and physical manifestations of said emotional distress.”
The lawsuit sought injunctive relief, special, general, and punitive monetary damages, attorney’s fees, costs of the suit and other relief through a trial by jury.
Last Thursday, a jury decided that Polisena is responsible for $20,000 in damages to Fuoco, along with two years worth of a council member’s salary, totaling $14,000, for a combined total of $34,000. Polisena said he plans to appeal the decision.
“I feel so good, and I’m not even done yet. [Polisena] can do whatever he wants, I really don’t care,” said Fuoco. “He’s got thick skin, my skin is as thick as his. He knows that, he knows Fuoco’s a fighter.”
In an interview following the jury’s decision, Fuoco, who was represented by Attorney Gregory J. Acciardo, explained that her Temporary Disability Insurance form with her Social Security number was brought into the October 2013 Council meeting. She said that several of her constituents were present during that meeting for concerns about road paving in her district, and that they were angry about road conditions and turned that anger towards her.
“For whatever reason, [Polisena] brought it to the council that I was suing the Town of Johnston for workman’s comp and TDI, and that’s why my roads weren’t getting done,” said Fuoco. “I couldn’t believe he made that statement because anyone who works for a town or state office, they don’t pay into workman’s comp or TDI.”
She added that the roads in question during that evening’s meeting were on her list of concerns and that they would be addressed during the following few years, but that the delays had nothing to do with her injury claims.
Fuoco stated that she never fell down in, or sued, the town of Johnston. She said she broke her back on March 25, 2011 in her condominium in Florida after falling in the condo lobby. The injury caused her to lay in bed for a week, and she came home to Rhode Island on April 1 to see her doctor. Three months later, she had back surgery. She said around 2016, she settled her case for the injury in Florida.
Fuoco wanted it known that her injuries never prevented her from serving the people of her district. Following the October 2013 Council meeting, however, Fuoco said that going forward “I got tortured.”
“Every one of my meetings [Polisena] came to. He said I had a restraining order put against him, which I never did, the court system did if you read the documents,” she said. “The judge put a restraining order against him never to get any of my personal paperwork and bring it out in public with my Social Security number on it.”
According to Fuoco, she sued the mayor because he “took my personal information. He personally went downstairs at [town hall] and got my personal paperwork and took it to a public meeting and made it public. You can’t do that it’s against the law.”
Fuoco explained that her relationship with Polisena wasn’t always tumultuous. She said she’s known the mayor for over 40 years, and supported and campaigned for him in various elections during his tenure. At some point, however, she said the relationship soured and things turned.
“Because he wants to have control, I will say control,” she said. “If you read my testimony last night, he’s evil, he’s vicious, and he’s mean.”
The councilwoman highlighted some of the work that she’s proud of during her service to District 1, such as work at the Mill Street Bridge, the Morgan Avenue Bridge, and issues surrounding Morgan Health Center. She added that once matters between her and Polisena came to a head, she felt ostracized in town.
“It came to a point that every elected official, anybody that worked for the town of Johnston, you might have thought that I had the plague. I couldn’t talk to anybody,” she said. “I was worse than blackballed.”
Fuoco added that, from the October meeting until her term ended, she felt “crucified” by the mayor. She said she was attempting to get health insurance during the period of her injury, and that such information was her own personal business, not the town’s.
Fuoco believes the jury awarded her two years of a council member’s pay because she was “sabotaged,” which made her re-election campaign that much more difficult. She added that she’s stayed the course and pursued the lawsuit because she’s on a mission.
“I was on a mission to have the people of the town of Johnston know the type of person this guy is, especially to a longtime friend,” she said. “I don’t know what his motive was to do that to me that night.”
The Councilwoman said that while the cased focused on the October 2013 meeting, there were other issues and avenues that she believes she could have pursued. She is also ready for five more years of litigation should appeals take that long, saying she is “ready to go.” Fuoco also believes that, following the jury’s decision, the mayor should step down.
“Yes, he should resign,” she said.
After the verdict, Mayor Polisena, who was represented by Attorney Paul V. Sullivan, provided brief comments on the outcome.
“I don’t have any comment on the case, however we disagree with the jury’s decision and we look forward to the appeal process moving forward. I’m just going to obviously go on being the mayor that I am, being very aggressive protecting the residents of the town,” he said. “It’s evident, because this is the third year in a row that the town has no tax increase, we have a lot of development. That’s all I have to say about it now.”
The mayor added that he plans to continue on in his role, and that he still plans to seek re-election in November.
“This has nothing to do with me running or not running. I’m running, provided the people want me,” he said.