A state appeals court ruled Tuesday that at least part of a former Atlantic City employee’s reverse-discrimination and wrongful-termination lawsuit against the city can proceed.
The suit, brought by former Assistant Business Administrator Domenic Cappella Sr. against the city and several city officials, alleges the city illegally retaliated against Cappella for reporting illegal or improper activities.
Cappella’s lawsuit also alleges he was a victim of reverse discrimination under former Mayor Lorenzo Langford’s administration.
In June 2012, Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Nelson C. Johnson dismissed the case, ruling Cappella’s poor job performance and the city’s financial crisis, not his whistle-blowing activities, were responsible for him losing his job and that he failed to prove he was discriminated against based on race.
In Tuesday’s decision, the three-judge panel ruled Cappella’s claim of wrongful termination could go forward.
The panel said there was evidence from which a jury could reasonably find Cappella engaged in whistle-blowing activities and that he had suffered adverse employment actions, but the question for a jury would be whether the two were linked.
The panel also ruled that Cappella’s request for punitive damages could go forward because it relies on the outcome of the wrongful termination allegation.
However, the court ruled that Cappella’s reverse-discrimination and hostile-work-environment claims did not meet the standards for moving forward.
“Instead, the plaintiff simply cites the fact that Langford hired many African-Americans as directors of municipal departments and offers no evidence, other than his self-serving assertion, that the mayor refused to hire Caucasians,” the judges wrote.
Cappella worked for the city in a number of positions from January 2002 to May 2010. After his position was eliminated in a cost-cutting measure, he declined to exercise his bumping rights and resigned.
During his tenure, he publicly criticized city officials repeatedly for actions such as misusing city vehicles, trading legal contracts for political donations and other practices, the decision said.
He was demoted in 2008 to assistant business administrator and alleged that most of his duties and responsibilities were stripped over the years before his job was eliminated.
The appellate judges remanded the case to Johnson. The ruling stated the motion judge “expressed no opinion about the credibility of the parties, either in his oral remarks during argument or in his comprehensive 18-page written opinion.”
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