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Davis and other Bayonne officials can be deposed in ‘sexting suit,’ judge rules

The lawsuit by former city employee Stacie Percella was reinstated by an appellate court in 2021

Mayor James Davis addresses the 56th Street Senior Center Christmas party on Dec. 21, 2021.

A judge has ruled that Bayonne Mayor James Davis can be deposed in a lawsuit filed by a former employee. The suit was filed by former deputy register Stacie Percella in 2018, who alleges that Davis engaged her in allegedly “sexting” text message conversations.

Efforts to seek a response from Mayor Davis on Dec. 29 and 30 through city spokesperson Joe Ryan were unsuccessful. Mayor Davis has not commented on the lawsuit nor any of its recent developments. Law Director Jay Coffey said it is city policy not to comment on active litigation.

The city is likely to appeal the decision.

The suit also alleges that Percella was fired in retaliation for filing a federal lawsuit against the city in 2014. That lawsuit alleged hostile environment discrimination, due to Percella’s actions as a vice president of the local civil service employee’s union, and because she rebuffed Davis’s alleged sexual overtures.

All claims in the 2014 federal lawsuit, except for the hostile work environment claim, were dismissed, but both sides have filed appeals. Additionally, the lawsuit in Hudson County also claims Davis allegedly offered her a $150,000 settlement in the federal suit in exchange for a sexual relationship.

Hudson County Superior Court Judge Joseph Turula ruled on Dec. 17 that Davis along with a number of other officials should be scheduled to be deposed in the matter within 20 days, including attorney Allan Roth, Ellen Horn, former Special Redevelopment Counsel Joseph DeMarco, Assistant City Attorney Donna Russo, Deborah Falciani, Director of Municipal Services Gary Chmielewski, Bernadette Nestico, and Third Ward City Councilman Gary La Pelusa.

The court order also extended the period for the discovery of evidence. The new end date is April 16, 2022 when the discovery must be completed. Additionally, the defendants were order to provide more specific responses to demands to produce documents.

Three-year-long legal battle

Percella was employed at City Hall from 2001 until she was terminated in 2016. She alleged the “sexting” took place between 2013 and 2015. She first made allegations against Davis during the public comment portion of a city council meeting in May of 2017.

The lawsuit was dismissed in Hudson County Superior Court in February of 2020 when Judge Kimberly Espinales-Maloney determined that Percella and her attorney had “willfully” been ignoring discovery deadlines, stating that discovery was “on a road to nowhere.”

According to the ruling, Percella failed to submit evidence of the text messages with Davis, did not answer supplemental questions within the deadline, and did not provide fact witnesses.

Percella’s former attorney had sought delays in the discovery process after the fact, citing medical issues relating to both Percella’s and her attorney’s families. Percella also changed attorneys three times during the proceedings.

Stacie Percella first made the allegations at the May 2017 meeting of the Bayonne City Council.

However, the case was brought back to life this year by a state appellate court. The Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division reinstated the case in May of 2021, arguing that these issues should not have led to the lawsuit being dismissed with prejudice, and that the case should have been dismissed only as a “last resort.”

Attorney Nicholas Sullivan is an associate of Steinhardt Cappelli Tinton & Taylor LLC which is representing the city in the lawsuit. In a motion to adjourn the suit in November of this year, Sullivan argued that discovery had lapsed, that Percella had not sought to extend it, and that “exceptional circumstances” were failing to be proved.

Sullivan wrote that depositions should not be allowed to inquire into a defendant’s personal life: “As this Court is aware, this is a highly contentious, and politicized, litigation involving numerous individuals and their careers and positions. The voluminous amount of discovery exchanged in this matter, clearly indicates the involvement, if any, of these individuals in the current litigation.”

Depositions are necessary, defendant argues

In a response to that motion on Dec. 13, attorney Vincent Gerbino, representing Percella in the case, argued that the city was “stalling.”

“The depositions are relevant and necessary to the Plaintiff’s case in chief,” Gerbino said. “It is clear as day what the Defendants’ counsel appears to be doing: delay, delay, delay then do not produce the Deponents (this worked for them in December, 2019, and they think it will again). Concealment will not be countenanced… We all do not need to be reminded that this is a sitting Mayor of the City of Bayonne ‘sexting’ a female subordinate, while at work, after work, and late night. Instead of working toward a resolution, Defendants utilize each and every opportunity to ‘mix up’ a 2013 U.S. District Court case with this State Case.”

The court partially agreed to the motion by Gerbino, in extending the discovery end date, allowing the depositions, and requiring a response by the Plaintiffs to Percella’s discovery demands by Jan. 5.

“Movant’s language regarding this case being, ‘…politically explosive’ has no relevance in documents submitted to this Court and are disregarded,” Judge Turula wrote in the Dec. 17 court order.

In 2018, a spokesman for the mayor at the time, Amit Jani, said that the messages were “harmless, playful banter between two adults” and called Percella’s allegations “part of an orchestrated campaign to make millions of dollars off of Bayonne taxpayers and destroy [his] reputation,” and that their friendship, which dates back decades, has “never been physical in nature.”

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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