ELIZABETH, NJ — Nine former employees of Elizabeth Public Schools are suing seven members of the Elizabeth Board of Education, along with the Elizabeth schools superintendent for First Amendment violations, due process violations and violations of the state Civil Rights Act.
Lester Dominguez, Ismael Estrada, Jr., Donald Goncalves, Miguel Jimenez, Marvin Lehman, Oscar Ocasio, Joseph Padlo, Gonzalo Quesada, and Robert Stigliano — all former employees of the school district — filed suit in U.S. District Court on Nov. 28. Defendants in the suit include: Elizabeth BOE president Charlene Bathelus, BOE members Maria Carvalho, Stephanie Goncalves, Stanley Neron, Daniel Nina and Jose Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Superintendent of Schools Olga Hugelmeyer.
The suit claims the defendants retaliated against the plaintiffs, based on their protected speech and associations, as a result of the November 2015 BOE election. The amount in controversy exceeds $100,000 per plaintiff, which includes retroactive and prospective salary and benefits, as well as pension credits.
At the time of the 2015 election, states the suit, two rival political factions in Elizabeth, both in the Democratic Party, endorsed different slates of candidates for three contested BOE seats.
One slate is considered to be run by Elizabeth politicians Rafael Fajardo and Tony Monteiro, and the other by Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage.
According to the complaint, the Fajardo and Monteiro faction has supported members who have been elected to the BOE for the past 20 years, maintaining a majority on the board. In 2015, the faction supported candidates Tony Monteiro, Elcy Castillo-Ospina and Michelle Velez-Jonte, who ran on a ticket unofficially called “Continue the Progress” or CTP.
Bollwage’s faction — the minority faction at that time — supported all the individually-named defendant board members, Bathelus, Carvalho, Goncalves, Neron, Nina and Rodriguez, according to the suit.
Prior to the 2015 election, the board consisted of five members of the CTP faction — Monteiro, Castillo-Ospina, Carlos Trujillo, Ana Maria Amin and Paul Perriera— and four members of the Bollwage faction: Bathelus, Neron, Rodriguez and Carvalho.
The candidates for the three contested seats in the 2015 election were CTP supporters Monteiro, Castillo-Ospina and Velez-Jonte; Bollwage supporters Bathelus, Goncalves and Nina; and Maria Medeiros-DaRassi, who did not align with either faction.
Thus, states the suit, the November 2015 election determined which faction would have the majority on BOE, with an opportunity for the minority faction to gain control.
After the election, Bollwage’s faction swept all three seats, giving it a 6-3 majority on the board.
In January 2016, the new board members were sworn in and, according to the suit, “purged” the Elizabeth public schools of employees, including the plaintiffs, who openly supported — or were perceived by the defendants as supporting — the CTP ticket, now in the minority.
“For each and every one of these employees, political affiliation was not an appropriate requirement for their employment position, and political affiliation was not necessary for the efficient operation of their position,” states the suit.
“The conduct of the defendants, in essentially creating a political affiliation requirement for certain employment positions and/or in retaliating against those who supported the Continue the Progress ticket, violates plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights. Defendants retaliated against each plaintiff by terminating their employment with the School District.”
The suit states that common BOE practice is that every employee must be under contract for the fiscal year. Upon renewal of an employee’s contract in June, employees typically sign a one-page contract indicating they can be terminated with 14 days’ notice. The board then adopted a resolution appointing each employee for the following fiscal year, 2015-2016, as indicated in the contract. In October 2015, the plaintiffs were given individual contracts signed by Bathelus as well as the board secretary and business administrator, Harold Kennedy, according to the suit.
The plaintiffs allege in their suit that their contracts were terminated or not renewed due to their campaign activities and associations.
“Their terminations were not due to performance, but rather due to retaliation for engaging in political activity for the CTP ticket,” the suit reads, stating that several of the plaintiffs were terminated prior to the end of their contracts. “As a result of this retaliation, plaintiffs have suffered lost pay, lost pension benefits, lost stipends, other economic damages, loss of life’s pleasures, loss of reputation, benefits, emotional distress, physical manifestation of emotional distress and other damages.”
In addition, Hugelmeyer is accused of issuing Rice notices to several of the plaintiffs. A Rice notice is required by state law to be given to public employees prior to any discussion of their jobs in a closed session, giving the employees an opportunity to have their employment status discussed in an open session. In this case, Hugelmeyer allegedly served Rice notices to several of the plaintiffs, and told them that they were forbidden from speaking at BOE meetings.
Mark Frost, attorney for the plaintiffs, told LocalSource that the heart of the complaint lies with political affiliation.
“Employees can’t be terminated because they’re not part of a political faction,” Frost told LocalSource in a phone call. “They were terminated, not because they didn’t do their jobs properly but because they didn’t back Bollwage. You can’t fire someone because they don’t back someone.”
Elizabeth School District spokesperson Pat Politano released a statement to LocalSource regarding the legal action.
“The allegations contained in the documents filed in federal court against the Elizabeth School District, superintendent of schools and Board of Education members are false, frivolous and will be defended vigorously. The renewal of all positions and contracts since January 2016, was done in accordance with state and federal law and Department of Education regulations.
“The only factors in making those decisions was efficiency and compliance with law and regulations. The Elizabeth School District is considering all appropriate legal actions in response to this complaint, including the possibility of filing a counterclaim against these complainants and others for running a corrupt organization under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.”
In response to this threat of a counterclaim against the plaintiffs, Frost said that he was confident that the plaintiffs had a solid case.
“It’s very clear to me that we have sufficient proof to prove our case,” Frost said. “They didn’t have a legitimate reason to terminate these employees. I think we have plenty of evidence supporting our case. As far as I’m concerned, bring it on.”