Judge Francine Schott, herself no stranger to litigation with the court system, is the target of a suit by a former secretary who claims to have been demoted for taking time off to care for a sick relative.
In her suit, Lisa Fisher claims that the Essex County Superior Court judge, for whom she worked for about a year, became her antagonist when she returned from a three-week leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.
Schott accused her of abandoning her job and making up a story about caring for her father in Virginia after his cancer surgery, according to the complaint in Fisher v. Schott, HUD-L-3429-13, filed July 22.
Fisher then took a five-week leave for anxiety and stress, allegedly as a result of harassment by Schott. Ultimately, Fisher was reassigned to a customer service clerk job after Schott pressed court officials to remove her, according to the suit, which also names acting Superior Court Clerk Elizabeth Ann Strom and the state as defendants.
The complaint includes counts under the FMLA, the state Family Leave Act (FLA) and the Law Against Discrimination.
Schott is on vacation and could not be reached, her chambers say. Judiciary spokeswoman Tammy Kendig says her office does not comment on pending litigation.
Fisher was hired as a Judiciary Clerk 2 in 2001, elevated to Judiciary Clerk 3 in 2004, and promoted to Judge's Secretary 1 and assigned to Schott in 2011.
Fisher claims that before her leave, she and Schott had a close relationship, exchanging gifts and visiting each other's homes.
Fisher's father underwent bladder cancer surgery on Nov. 6, 2012, and Schott got human resources department permission for her leave as of Dec. 10, 2012.
On Fisher's return on Jan. 3, 2013, Schott allegedly accused Fisher of not traveling to visit her father and demanded toll and hotel receipts to prove she had gone. When Fisher refused, Schott allegedly said, "you know I could fire you, right?"
That same day, Schott allegedly met in her office with a human resources coordinator, within earshot of Fisher, and indicated she was looking to find something improper about the leave.
Also that day, while straightening Schott's desk, which she did daily, Fisher allegedly found a sign that said, "The Seven D's — Deceit, Duality, Distrust, Duplicity, Deception, Disloyalty, Dishonesty." Fisher claimed Schott left it for her.
In coming weeks, Fisher overheard Schott indicating to officials she was seeking a basis to take action against Fisher, according to the suit.
Schott's actions allegedly led to Fisher's anxiety and stress, requiring professional treatment, so she took a temporary disability leave on Jan. 24 to March 11, later extended to April 2.
When she returned, Trial Court Administrator Collins Ijoma told her he had received about 200 emails from Schott, demanding Fisher's removal, and had to go along with her demand, Fisher claims.
On June 17, she was demoted from Judicial Secretary 1 to Judiciary Clerk 3, where she remains.
Her $55,034 pay was not cut, but her attorney, Andrew Dwyer, who heads a firm in Newark, says the demotion limits future increases, and her new job entails less status and responsibility, and has fewer privileges and perquisites.
Dwyer says a demotion with significantly less responsibility is considered an adverse action under the FMLA, FLA and LAD. The suit seeks restoration to Fisher's old position; compensatory, liquidated and punitive damages; and legal fees.
Ijoma did not return a call. The attorney general had not yet received the complaint, says spokesman Lee Moore.
Judge Has Litigious Past
Schott herself once sued the court system over employment issues, stemming from a long-seething disappointment over her Superior Court assignments.
At the time of her appointment to the bench in 1992 by Gov. Jim Florio, Schott was an environmental, civil and employment litigator with Genova, Burns & Vernoia, whose senior partner, Angelo Genova, had been counsel to candidate Florio and then the governor’s special labor counsel. Schott made it known she wished to sit in the Civil Part. Instead, Assignment Judge Burrell Ives Humphreys put her in the Criminal Part. She stayed there until 1996, when the new assignment judge, Alvin Weiss, assigned her to Civil.
But in July 2001, when Chief Justice Deborah Poritz transferred her to the Criminal Part, Schott complained to Poritz, requesting a meeting. When that was turned down, she hired a lawyer to press her grievance that the transfer was motivated by gender bias on the part of Essex County supervisory judges.
Schott was reassigned to the Civil Part and Poritz ordered a special investigation in March 2002 in response to complaints by Schott and other female judges that Essex was a male bastion when it came to promotions and assignments. The investigator, former Judge Robert Muir Jr., interviewed most, if not all, of Essex’s dozen women judges in a single day during the first week of April 2002. The details of the investigation were never made public.
A year later, Schott filed suit, claiming her move from Civil to Criminal was gender discrimination and retaliation for complaints about assignments. She also claimed that the report of the internal investigation was not turned over as required by state law.
Two courts found Schott had no case because she suffered no pay cut and judicial rotation is the chief justice’s prerogative. The Supreme Court declined to grant certification in 2006.