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 reassigned last week, and will no longer be hearing local cases.
Two months ago, the Bayonne Community News reported that the judge had made political contributions to former mayor Joseph Doria, which could have been a conflict of interest since some of the cases dated back to a time when Doria was mayor of Bayonne.
“We received the order from the U.S. District Court saying he had been reassigned,” said attorney Karen DeSoto, who represents many of the 10 city workers who are currently suing the city.
“Surprisingly, Judge Sheridan did not disclose at any time any of the above mentioned information.” – Karen DeSoto
The case has dragged on the last six years, and might have ended in January when Federal Judge Peter G. Sheridan dismissed their case.
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.
Both men said this was not true and DeSoto challenged the ruling with another appeal. But in researching the appeal, DeSoto said she discovered campaign contributions made to the Doria campaign by Sheridan and his legal firm.
In a suit filed in last April in U.S. District Court, DeSoto claimed that the Sheridan’s 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 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.
In the suit, 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.
A routine transfer of cases?
On June 22, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Barrett Brown transferred the case to relatively new U.S. District judge Esther Salas as part of a routine shift of cases when new judges come onto the bench.
In addition, Brown reassigned Sheridan to hear cases closer to Trenton.
“There was no statement on the possible conflict,” DeSoto said. “We simply received the Chief Judge’s order.”
Since the Rowan and Taylor case is currently before the state Appellate Court, DeSoto said the shift does not have an immediate effect.
“The question is, what happens if the Appellate Court remands the case back to the lower court?” she said. “Will it go before Sheridan, or [a] new judge?”
In April, when she filed the suit, DeSoto said she found out about the political and personal connections between Doria and Sheridan only after the judge dismissed the case against the city. Had she known sooner, she said, he would have filed a motion to have Sheridan recuse himself from the case.
“If the case gets sent back to his court, then I will file a motion for him to recluse himself,” she said during an interview this week.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.