US Federal District Judge Kevin McNulty, Martin Luther King Courthouse, Newark, NJ.
US Federal District Judge Kevin McNulty, Martin Luther King Courthouse, Newark, NJ. (Carmen Natale)

The judge in a would-be class action brought by motorists allegedly caught in the traffic jam caused by the Bridgegate lane closures has taken himself off the case.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty of the District of New Jersey to disqualify himself in Galicki v. State of New Jersey appears to have been prompted by work he did for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a defendant, while still in private practice at the Gibbons firm in Newark. McNulty, who sits in Newark, became a judge two years ago, in July 2012.

Chief Judge Jerome Simandle reassigned the case to U.S. District Judge Jose Linares, also in Newark, on July 30.

On June 20, McNulty, who had four cases in which the Port Authority was a defendant, issued sua sponte orders in all of them, disclosing his ties to the agency and announcing that any party could knock him off their case simply by submitting an objection to his staying on the case within 20 days.

McNulty revealed that in 2006, he billed 27 hours for consulting and research on Nash v. Port Authority, an appeal from a New York State Court ruling that the agency was liable on claims arising out of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. He said he did not recall any client contact, his name did not appear on the brief and he did not appear in the case.

In addition, he said he was “closely associated” with Gibbons lawyers who represented the Port Authority in 15 to 20 matters between 2000 and 2012 and as a partner who shared in firm profits, the legal fees could have boosted his compensation, he said in the order.

McNulty said he did not believe he had an actual conflict in Galicki or the other matters but thought his impartiality “might reasonably be questioned,” providing a basis for disqualification under judicial ethics canons.

Rather than recusing, however, he resorted to Canon 3D’s remittal of disqualification process, which is similar to ethics rules that allow lawyers with conflicts to keep cases by obtaining clients’ informed consent.

Galicki is the only case of the four where McNulty wound up disqualifying himself.

Who objected in Galicki is not known, however, because McNulty set up a procedure designed to keep him, and any judge who replaced him, from finding out.

Under McNulty’s order, objections were not to be filed electronically via PACER but instead lodged with his clerk, who was not to tell him or the new judge who objected and who didn’t.

Nor would anyone be questioned about the basis for their objection, McNulty said in his order.

McNulty also said in the order that a single objection would suffice for him to remove himself but that lack of an objection would be deemed consent.

The only attorney in Galicki who would comment on McNulty’s recusal was the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Rosemarie Arnold, who heads a Fort Lee, N.J.-based firm.

While Arnold would neither confirm nor deny that she had objected to McNulty’s involvement in the case, she did say “it would be imprudent for the plaintiffs in this case to move forward with a judge who had represented one of the main defendants.”

Counsel for the defendants in Galicki, meanwhile, either did not return calls or refused to say whether they had objected. They also refused to comment on the case being reassigned to Linares.

The state Attorney General’s office, representing the state of New Jersey and Gov. Christie declined through spokesman Paul Loriquet to say whether they had objected or to comment on the matter, as did Chris Valens, speaking on behalf of the Port Authority, which is represented by in-house counsel.

Kevin Marino of Chatham, N.J.’s Marino Tortorella & Boyle, who represents defendant William Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, also declined comment.

John Sullivan of Cozen O’Connor in Cherry Hill, N.J., a lawyer for former Port Authority deputy director William Baroni, also a defendant, did not return a call.

Two Galicki defendants, David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority who resigned last December, and Bridget Anne Kelley, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, have not yet appeared or answered in the case.

Both have counsel representing them in the Bridgegate investigations who did not return calls regarding Galicki: Alan Zegas of Chatham, for Wildstein, and Michael Critchley Sr. of Roseland, N.J.’s Critchley Kinum & Vasquez, for Kelley.

Arnold represents individuals and businesses who claim they became trapped in Fort Lee traffic last September when local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were blocked.

The lane closures, which lasted for more than four days and were allegedly orchestrated by Wildstein, Kelly and possibly others to retaliate against Fort Lee’s mayor for not endorsing Christie for reelection last November, are the subject of several investigations.

The 11-count complaint in Galicki, filed on Jan. 9, includes civil rights, official misconduct, conspiracy, false imprisonment, emotional distress and breach of contract claims.

No answers have been filed yet because the time has been extended pending a decision on whether to consolidate Galicki with another putative class action over the lane closures, GW Car Service v. State of New Jersey, which is assigned to District Judge William Walls of the District of New Jersey in Newark.

McNulty continues to preside over the other three cases against the Port Authority.

One is a 2012 suit by Maher Terminals alleging illegal port charges and fees, and the other two, filed earlier this year, are civil rights actions involving Port Authority police.

The Port Authority operates the George Washington Bridge and other bridges and tunnels in the New York area, as well as the region’s major airports and the PATH train system that connects Manhattan and New Jersey.

Contact the reporter mgallagher@alm.com.