A lawsuit that led to a public outcry over alleged racism against city workers has been dismissed by a U.S District Court.
In a ruling issued on April 1, Judge Peter G. Sheridan dismissed the lawsuit filed against the city by two former city employees, saying that although the case implied discriminatory practices in the city, the two men failed to prove their case, and in some areas, failed to meet filing deadlines required under statutes covering discrimination claims.
Earl Rowan and Simon Taylor are among a number of employees who filed a suit against the city, raising a number of allegations that included supervisors using the "N-word" against them; being assigned to demeaning, menial jobs if they protested; and being denied permanent job placement, forcing them to continue to work in low-wage, seasonal jobs without benefits.
“My administration maintains a strict policy against discrimination of any kind.”-- Mayor Mark Smith
Rowan and Taylor filed the lawsuit in September 2007, seeking damages for lost earnings, an injunction against the alleged discriminatory behavior, and punitive damages.
Rowan, who fixed parking meters and did other maintenance work for the Bayonne Parking Authority, claimed he was transferred to the Bayonne Public Library when he sought a job as a parking supervisor in 2000. In 2005, Rowan and Taylor filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission after DPW supervisor William O'Brien allegedly referred to them and two other employees by using the "N-word."
O'Brien, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit filed by Rowan and Taylor, was terminated that month, but later reinstated to his $51,000 salary job with back pay.
This and several other similar suits filed against the city allege systematic racism in the hiring and promoting practices by the city. Under the urging of DeSoto, public forums have been held in the city with national civil rights leaders to investigate the level of alleged abuse.
In dismissing this case, Sheridan said the two men raised personal rather than social issues in their case. The court said that while the two men raised social issues of racism, their case was personal in nature.
The court said that while the suit alleged “public concern” in regards to discrimination, the court could find no public concern in this case.
“Plaintiffs did not speak on a matter of public concern, but instead focused on personal complaint,” Sheridan said in his ruling. “[These] statements did not relate to any matter of political, social or other concern to the community. To the contrary, the content, form, and context of these statements convey the plaintiffs’ personal infraction, frustration, and discontent with workplace enforcement towards them as blacks.”
The plaintiffs, the judge said, also failed to make the case that the city’s rehiring of a supervisor accused of making racial slurs was in itself discriminatory against the workers.
The court also said it did not see the transfer of the workers from library duty to a trash truck as meeting the standards for discrimination.
The court also said that Rowan’s claims that he was retaliated against and denied promotions required him to file a complaint within 300 days of the alleged failure to promote, which he did not do.
“Moreover, Mr. Rowan has offered no evidence in support of Mr. Rowan’s claim that Bayonne allegedly failed to promote Rowan to a superintendent position,” Sheridan said.
Case will be reviewed
DeSoto, however, said the ruling left several questions unanswered.
“This is not over,” she said.
In one instance, the city was supposed to institute sensitivity training as part of the agreement to reinstate the supervisor.
DeSoto said the city gave sexual harassment sensitivity training, and the judge – in making this ruling – seemed to think this qualified in meeting the original requirements.
“Perhaps if the proper training had been given, there would have been no retaliation against my clients,” she said. “I will be having another judge review that.”
Judge Sheridan also questioned whether this case should have been heard in state court rather than a federal court, another area DeSoto said she intended to investigate.
A social issue?
During negotiations to potentially settle the suit, the city attorneys alleged that DeSoto threatened to bring in individuals from outside of Bayonne to explore possible past discrimination practices if the city did not make payments in the case.
Last month, a public forum was held at the Elks Lodge on 21st Street, where dozens of people testified to alleged ongoing and discriminatory practices by the city and its independent authorities, including the Parking Authority and Housing Authority. This testimony included statements by Rowan and Taylor.
“The city refused to settle the Rowan and Taylor matter and requested the court to dismiss the case for failure to state a valid claim,” according to a statement issued by the city regarding the case. “The court agreed with the city’s position that no violation of the plaintiffs’ civil rights had occurred by the facts presented.”
“Our position all along was that these claims had no merit, and we are pleased that Judge Sheridan agreed with us,” said Mayor Mark Smith.
The city, he said, will continue to defend against other cases involving incidents that occurred five years or more in the past.
“My administration maintains a strict policy against discrimination of any kind,” Smith said. “Discrimination is simply not tolerated, and any and all incidents brought to our attention would be swiftly investigated and addressed.”