A longtime Newark municipal court judge is suing the city, the mayor and her former supervisors, alleging she was removed from the bench based on fabricated allegations of drinking on the job.
The lawsuit by former Judge Vanessa Williams Powell was filed in Essex County Superior Court in July and on Aug. 10 removed by the defendants to U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey based on federal question jurisdiction.
In her lawsuit, Powell is alleging wrongful termination from her $128,000-a-year-job, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, defamation, infliction of emotional distress, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, and violations of the Law Against Discrimination and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.
The removal petition noted that the suit raises a constitutional question on the Equal Protection Clause.
Powell’s suit said she was appointed to the municipal court in 2002 and served until she was told in May 2017 that she would not be reappointed, and should no longer appear for work.
According to the complaint, Municipal Court Judge Victoria Pratt, on May 5, 2017, said she detected the smell of alcohol on Powell. Powell didn’t respond, and assumed the matter was closed, she said in the complaint.
Later, the complaint said, Pratt wrote a letter to Mayor Ras Baraka, saying that she had detected the smell of alcohol on Powell’s breath and believed that she either was drunk or had a drinking problem, allegations that Powell denied.
After a May 31, 2017, executive session with Baraka and the Newark City Council, from which Powell was excluded, she was told to not appear for work thereafter, she claims.
“The Defendants’ conduct appears to be in retaliation for having a perceived condition of alcoholism,” the complaint said. “Defendants have wrongfully discharged Plaintiff from her position as a Municipal Court Judge in violation of a clear mandate of public policy.”
The complaint, filed on Powell’s behalf by East Orange solo Christopher Roberts, said Powell’s life has taken a tailspin since she lost her job.
“Plaintiff fell into a deep depression,” he said. “Plaintiff began sleeping on her living room floor. Plaintiff refused to leave her house and has not been gainfully employed since termination.”
The suit seeks Powell’s reinstatement, back pay, an injunction against further harassment, and payment of counsel fees and costs.
Roberts could not be reached by phone for comment.
The city’s lead attorney is Domenick Carmagnola of Carmagnola & Ritardi in Morristown. Baraka is represented by James Dronzek of Chasan Leyner Mallon & Cappuzzo in Secaucus. Pratt is represented by Victor Afanador of Lite DePalma Greenberg in Newark.
None returned calls seeking comment on the suit.
The matter was assigned to U.S. District Judge Claire Cecchi and Magistrate Judge Steven C. Mannion, according to electronic case records.