One would expect that members of the New Jersey state judiciary would be particularly attuned to laws regarding workplace discrimination. But according to a lawsuit filed by state Superior Court judge John Russo Jr., his removal from the bench was a result of a hostile work environment. Russo is suing the court and some of his former colleagues, claiming that they objected to the time that he needed to care for his disabled son.
The lawsuit names the state judiciary, as well as Ocean County Assignment Judge Marlene Lynch Ford and Presiding Family Judge Madelin Einbeinder. Russo was removed from his judicial duties earlier this month and told to undergo an evaluation to determine whether he was fit for duties, but despite this official explanation for his removal his lawsuit indicates that Judge Ford had told him that the action was being taken because he was displaying “significant problems adjusting to life as a Superior Court judge” as well as his “history of service on the bench.” Russo’s 19-year old son has Down syndrome and a speech disorder, and may also have bipolar disorder. Ford also indicated that Russo’s law clerk had complained about him and that her complaints – if verified – could lead to a hostile work environment claim against him.
The details of the allegations against the judge are shocking in that they involve the judiciary, but will be painfully familiar to many who have been treated askance or suffered negative consequences for requiring time off to care for a family member. In Russo’s case, he has sole custody of his son and was engaged in a court case to be named his guardian due to his disabilities. He was named guardian in March 2017, and his son was hospitalized for five days following a severe psychiatric episode around that same time. When he asked Judge Ford whether he was eligible for intermittent family leave both to attend to the court proceedings and to be with his son, she denied his request. He also cites a meeting that he had with her shortly after his appointment in which he discussed his son’s disabilities, and that at that time she had taken a “harsh and judgmental” tone and said, “Maybe this job is not for you.”
The allegations of a hostile workplace were not limited to those against Judge Ford. Russo also cites a conversation during a meeting with Judge Einbeinder during which he related the particular challenges involved in his son’s care: her response was, “Do you know how many of my son’s soccer games I have missed?” The lawsuit lists several critical statements that Judge Einbeinder made about him to other members of the court staff, including to attorneys and judges, and points out that he was assigned the largest caseload, the most difficult cases, and responsibility for emergency phone duties over the court’s recess during the Christmas holiday break in 2016.
Though Russo is still permitted entry to his chambers and continues to be paid, his caseload has been entirely reassigned, and according to the lawsuit this represents exceptional treatment when compared to other judges accused of misconduct. His claim is seeking both compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to being restored to his full and active duty and protection against further discrimination.
Judge Russo’s claim against the judiciary is submitted as a violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and against his judicial colleagues for association disability under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination. The association disability provision protects employees from being discriminated against based on their relationship or association with an individual with a disability, while Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act protects against a hostile work environment as a result of this association.
Having the responsibility for providing care for a disabled family member is a challenge, and when this difficulty is exacerbated by hostility in the workplace it represents a violation of the caregiver’s rights. If you have been discriminated against or subjected to a hostile work environment, there may be legal remedies available. The attorneys at Shebell and Shebell are here to provide you with the guidance that you need.