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Coursey v. City of Atlantic City

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

October 21, 2013

ERNEST COURSEY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CITY OF ATLANTIC CITY; ROBERT LEVY; DOMENIC CAPPELLA; CRAIG CALLAWAY; [1] and ATLANTIC CITY SUPERVISORS' ASSOCIATION- LOCAL 1 AFFILIATE R.W.D.S.U. LOCAL 108 AFL-CIO PUBLIC SECTOR DIVISION UNION, individually, jointly and severally, Defendants-Respondents.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued October 1, 2013

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Docket No. L-3689-07.

George L. Farmer argued the cause for appellant.

Steven S. Glickman argued the cause for respondents City of Atlantic City and Domenic Cappella (Ruderman & Glickman, P.C., attorneys; Mr. Glickman, of counsel; Vincent M. Avery, on the brief).

Brian D. Heun argued the cause for respondent Robert Levy (Ridgway & Ridgway, attorneys; Mr. Heun, on the brief).

Tuohy & Tuohy, attorneys for respondent Craig Callaway, join in the brief of respondent City of Atlantic City.

Respondent Atlantic City Supervisors' Association-Local 1 Affiliate R.W.D.S.U. Local 108 AFL-CIO Public Sector Division Union has not filed a brief.

Before Judges Messano, Sabatino, and Rothstadt.

PER CURIAM

Plaintiff Ernest Coursey is a former Councilman and longtime municipal employee in Atlantic City (the "City"). He was discharged from his City employment in January 2006 after a new mayor took office following an election. Alleging improper political retaliation, Coursey filed this civil action in the Law Division in 2007 against the City, various City officials, and his labor union, contesting his discharge on a variety of constitutional and common-law grounds.

At the behest of the City, the trial court transferred this dispute, pursuant to Rule 1:13-4(a), to the Civil Service Commission (the "Commission") under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction. The Commission denied Coursey relief under the civil service laws, except that it directed the City to place him prospectively on a special reemployment list. The Commission did not address Coursey's claims of political retaliation or the alleged violation of his constitutional and common-law rights. Coursey then requested the trial court to reopen his lawsuit, which it declined to do in a series of orders that he now appeals.

For the reasons that follow, we reverse the trial court's orders denying reinstatement of Coursey's lawsuit. We remand this case to the Law Division for a merits disposition of his numerous claims that are not based on the civil service laws. We also reinstate the individual defendants, whom the court improvidently dismissed with prejudice from this case at the time of the Rule 1:13-4(a) transfer.

I.

We recite pertinent facts from the present record, with a caveat that certain factual contentions are hotly disputed and have yet to be adjudicated as to their merits. In addition, we need not present the entire complicated procedural history of this litigation, but only canvass those aspects that are germane to our analysis of the issues before us.[2]

A.

In 1986, the City hired Coursey as a clerk typist, a classified position. His position became permanent five years later in 1991. Later that same year, Coursey took a leave of absence to serve on the Atlantic City Council (the "City Council"). He submitted periodic leave of absence forms to secure his permanent clerk typist position through 1993, but apparently not thereafter.

Coursey served on the City Council until 2002, at which time the newly-elected mayor, Lorenzo Langford, appointed him as his confidential aide. Coursey believed his appointment upset defendant Craig Callaway, also a Langford supporter, because Callaway apparently thought he instead deserved the confidential aide position.

In July 2004, Coursey's title changed to confidential secretary. Thereafter, in August 2005, Coursey was provisionally appointed as a demolition coordinator in the City's neighborhood services department. Coursey changed positions again in September 2005, this time to an unclassified liaison for neighborhood services.

Callaway was initially Langford's opponent in the 2005 election for City mayor. In the months leading up to the election, however, defendant Robert Levy replaced Callaway on the ballot as Langford's main opponent. Levy won the election.

Mayor Levy was sworn into office on January 1, 2006. That same day, defendant Domenic Cappella was sworn in as the City's business administrator.

Meanwhile, in December 2005, Coursey had resumed his former position as a provisional demolition coordinator. At the time, he reported to the City's then-current business administrator, Ben Fitzgerald. In a letter dated that same month, the City's personnel director, Benay George, informed Coursey that Coursey did not have job security in his extant ...


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