A U.S. District Court judge who dismissed a discrimination suit alleging that the city of Bayonne violated the civil rights and free speech of two African-American employees was apparently a contributor to then-Mayor Joseph Doria at the time of the alleged discrimination.
An appeal filed on the behalf of Earl Rowan and Simon Taylor, two employees for the city whose case was dismissed earlier this year, said that Federal Judge Peter G. Sheridan, who made the ruling in favor of the city, should have reclused himself from the case because of his contributions to one of the defendants.
The suit filed in late April in U.S. District Court claims that the personal relationship between Doria and members of his administration should have been disclosed and that the judge should not have ruled on this case or other cases involving the city of Bayonne during that period.
The suit also alleges that Sheridan was also assigned to a separate but associated companion case in which African American and Hispanic employees of the Bayonne Department of Public Works claimed they had faced racial discrimination and lack of promotions – which the suit claims were “the direct result of policies and practices of Mayor Doria and his administration.” The suit also said many of the same individuals make up the current administration.
The suit filed by attorney Karen DeSoto said that she has been notified of a relationship between Judge Sheridan and Doria as well as other people connected to his administration – and, according to an affidavit attached to the suit, Doria and Sheridan are personal friends. Doria and Sheridan also served as trustees together at St. Peter’s College. And Sheridan, Sheridan’s brother, and Sheridan’s law firm all contributed to Doria’s election funds spanning a period from 1999 to 2006.
Doria served as mayor of Bayonne from 1998 to 2007.
“Surprisingly, Judge Sheridan did not disclose at any time any of the above mentioned information regarding his personal friendship with Mayor Joseph Doria and the City of Bayonne,” DeSoto said in the suit.
During an interview with DeSoto, she said that had she known at the time that there was such a relationship, she would have filed a motion to have Sheridan recluse himself from the case.
“Normally, a judge will disclose this information,” she said. “Because he did not disclose it and we found out after a negative ruling, we are filing this motion to the chief justice.”
The chief justice, DeSoto said, has several options – to set aside Sheridan’s dismissal and remand the case back to the court for a trial, or the justice can seek another review from a different judge, or a number of other options.
This comes at a time when the court has set up a settlement hearing for May 26 in the case in which a mediator meets with both sides to see if some kind of agreement can be reached to resolve the case without a trial.
“We’ve had these hearings before,” DeSoto said. “I do not think it will be settled. I believe the case will be sent to trial.”
Judge ruled Rowan never made his case
Earlier this year, Sheridan ruled that Rowan and Taylor, who filed their suit in 2007, had failed to produce enough evidence to show that their civil and First Amendment rights had been violated.
The original suit from 2005 claimed that the two men were denied promotions while their white counterparts with less seniority were promoted. When the two men complained, they were allegedly assigned to demeaning and menial jobs. The suit also claims that supervisors openly used the “N-word.”
Sheridan in his ruling said that the two men had failed to show a public concern in their case with the supervisor and had allegedly missed the 300-day filing deadline for filing the complaint about the promotion while Rowan was working for the Bayonne Parking Authority.
Rowan disputed the ruling at the time, saying that he had met deadlines, and asked how his being abused by a supervisor in a racial manner was “not” a public concern.
While the city did fire the supervisor a short time after the incident, the city was later found to have violated procedure for such matters. Also, a judge found that the supervisor was never given the warning notice as required. Under state rules, an employee must be warned first, and if he or she continues to violate the policy, then the city can terminate the employee.
Not an isolated incident
Rowan is among 10 DPW employees who filed three lawsuits against the city’s allegedly discriminatory labor practice, nine of whom are African Americans, and one Hispanic.
Rowan, who repaired parking meters and performed other maintenance work for the Parking Authority, claims he was transferred to the Bayonne Public Library when he asked for a promotion to supervisor.
Rowan and Taylor, his co-worker at the library, filed a complaint in 2005 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission after a DPW supervisor allegedly used the “N-word” in reference to them and two other employees.
Their case, as well as other alleged incidents, became the focus of public hearings and meetings with public officials earlier this year with Rev. Horace Sheffield III, president of the Michigan chapter of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
In one session, Sheffield, along with a panel of other prominent members of the local civil rights community, listened to Bayonne residents – most of who were African American or Hispanic – testify to alleged abuses they’ve experience as an employee of the city or in dealing with city workers, schools, and other public entities.
City officials said that the city has actively sought to hire minorities, noting that despite efforts to get minorities, many do not take civil service and placement exams. The city did note that when people did take them and qualified, the city accommodated them.
“If you don’t take the test, you can’t get hired, and if you can’t get hired, you can’t get promoted to supervisor,” said City Business Administrator Steve Gallo.
Gallo said the Smith Administration takes allegations of discrimination very seriously, does not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and will not allow the existence of a hostile workplace.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.