A municipal court judge whose alleged misconduct is central to a sexual harassment and whistleblower suit against former New Jersey Gov. Donald DiFrancesco's law firm has left the bench.
Richard Sasso sent resignation letters on Jan. 22 to officials in the four Somerset County, N.J., towns where he sat, Bridgewater, Bound Brook, Warren and Watchung, citing health problems and the demands of private practice as his reasons.
"I have experienced a number of substantive health-related ailments that have impaired my physical ability to effectively manage my professional and personal life," wrote Sasso, a Warren solo, mentioning spinal injuries from an automobile accident among them.
"[T]he long nighttime hours sitting as a judge has caused undue stress on me and my commitment to my family," he said.
Another complication in Sasso's life is a judicial ethics grievance against him filed last year by Michele D'Onofrio -- then Warren's municipal prosecutor -- and its materialization in a civil litigation to which he is not a party.
D'Onofrio complained to the township administrator, to the Somerset County presiding municipal judge and in June to the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, alleging misconduct by Sasso.
D'Onofrio says her complaints got her booted on Sept. 21 from DiFrancesco, Bateman, Coley, Yospin, Kunzman, Davis & Lehrer in Warren -- the former governor's firm -- where D'Onofrio was a nonequity partner.
She claims in her lawsuit against the firm, filed last October, that her complaints to ethics authorities and her cooperation in an FBI inquiry about Sasso's handling of a case caused a backlash among her superiors because the judge was a "political ally, friend and crony" of the firm. She charged that one of the partners -- Sen. Christopher Bateman, R-Somerset, who is also a Bridgewater municipal prosecutor -- advised her not to file the grievance.
The DiFrancesco firm's attorney, Christine Amalfe of Gibbons in Newark, said after the suit was filed, "The DiFrancesco, Bateman law firm made a business decision and asked plaintiff to take her practice elsewhere because of several issues, including plaintiff's account receivables." The firm also denied the suit's sexual harassment charge.
D'Onofrio included in her complaint the substance of her ethics grievance against Sasso. She said she witnessed Sasso engaging in behavior that was "inappropriate at best, unethical and illegal at worse."
She claimed he was inebriated in court on two occasions: Dec. 6, 2006, and April 17, 2007.
In June 2005, she claimed, Sasso issued a telephonic search and arrest warrant for Lawrence Ray for violating a domestic restraining order, a civil matter that should have been in family court.
D'Onofrio complained to the police and the incident became the subject of an FBI inquiry. The suit does not say why, but Ray had been mentioned in news accounts as a friend and potential witness in the affairs of disgraced former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik. D'Onofrio cooperated in the probe by recounting what happened in Ray's municipal court case, the suit said.
Ray sued Sasso and Warren police officials in federal court in Newark last June 15, alleging they violated his civil rights in the search of his home.
Sasso issued the oral warrant for the search, but police later turned in a report that made no mention of Sasso or a warrant. Ray alleged that Sasso asked police to destroy the original report.
On Jan. 10, U.S. District Judge Joel Pisano dismissed Sasso as a defendant, finding his actions in issuing the oral warrant were protected by judicial immunity under R. 3:5-3(b). The suit is continuing against the other defendants.
Sasso did not return a Law Journal reporter's call, but he told The Star-Ledger of Newark on Jan. 22 that his resignation was unrelated to D'Onofrio's ethics grievance or the pending lawsuits.
PROTECTIVE ORDER, VENUE CHANGE SOUGHT
Meanwhile, D'Onofrio's discrimination and whistleblower suit against the DiFrancesco firm is at sea amid pending motions.
On Jan. 16, Amalfe moved for a protective order to limit discovery and to protect confidential information. She says such orders are typical in employment cases and are routinely granted.
D'Onofrio's lawyer, Nancy Erika Smith of Montclair's Smith Mullin, says a protective order is unnecessary because she would keep private information that does not relate to the defendants.
Amalfe is also asking for a venue change from Essex County, where the suit was filed, to Somerset County, where all the players are situated. "Filing in Essex County is inappropriate forum-shopping, plain and simple," she says.
But Smith says the case should be kept out of Somerset because it involves individuals with political influence there, such as Bateman.
"I guess Christine Amalfe has never heard of senatorial courtesy," says Smith. "Bateman can control who becomes a judge and who gets tenured."
Amalfe responds: "To suggest that any judge in any county owes anything to the defendant in this case is outrageous."