3rd Circuit revives judge's claims against court officials over seized tape recorder, harassment

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A New Jersey superior court judge can sue her assignment judge and other court officials for alleged constitutional and statutory violations, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The judge, Deborah Gross-Quatrone, had alleged that a court official wrongly confiscated her tape recorder while she was trying to secretly record a meeting. She also claimed that there was a hostile work environment.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Philadelphia ruled that Gross-Quatrone can sue under New Jersey discrimination law, the equal protection clause and the Fourth Amendment.

Law360 has coverage of the April 27 nonprecedential opinion.

Gross-Quatrone had alleged that her assignment judge made disparaging remarks about her gender and appearance.

The assignment judge allegedly shouted at Gross-Quatrone and mocked her “fancy clothes and bare legs,” according to Law360.

The alleged harassment occurred between August and December 2015, a time period when Gross-Quatrone was accused of various forms of misconduct, the appeals court said.

Gross-Quatrone had been accused of making inappropriate statements to court employees, failing to update her motions list, using her secretary to perform personal tasks, and allowing her law clerk to begin her clerkship earlier than permitted.

Gross-Quatrone secretly recorded a meeting in December 2015 to discuss the allegations regarding her law clerk. A court official spotted the phone, retrieved it from her purse, kept the device and made a copy of the recording.

Gross-Quatrone’s assignment judge filed an ethics complaint a few days later, and the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct recommended a two-month suspension without pay. Gross-Quatrone filed her federal lawsuit.

A federal judge tossed the suit, finding that the issues had already been litigated in the ethics proceeding and Gross-Quatrone was collaterally estopped from relitigating them.

The 3rd Circuit disagreed on the collateral estoppel issue. Although Gross-Quatrone had alleged that there was a hostile work environment, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct had made no finding on the matter, the appeals court said. Nor did the advisory committee make any findings on her claims that the tape recorder seizure violated her constitutional rights.

Although there was no collateral estoppel, the court upheld the dismissal of Gross-Quatrone’s claim that listening to the contents of the tape recorder violated her First Amendment rights.

The court also upheld the dismissal of Gross-Quatrone’s conspiracy claims, saying she offered no factual support for them.

Gross-Quatrone was suspended for two months in January 2019 for taping or trying to tape three meetings with her assignment judge and court officials. She transferred to Essex County in January 2016 and has since performed satisfactorily, the advisory committee said at the time.

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