Three members of the board of adjustment removed for boycotting meetings have filed a lawsuit against the city, according to federal court documents.
Aheya Khan, Montaha Deeb, and Alaur Khondokar allege the city discriminated against them on the basis of ethnicity and religion. They also allege the city council deprived them of their due process and retaliated against them for complaining about discrimination.
Council members passed a resolution removing Khan and Deeb from the Paterson Board of Adjustment in Sept. 2016. Khondokar did not have to be removed; his term expired in July of that year.
Councilman William McKoy was unaware of the lawsuit on Monday morning. He was president of the city council when the incomplete hearings were held last year. “The fact of the matter is they serve at the pleasure of the council,” he said. “We addressed the matter the best we can.”
The actions that were taken was done in the “best interest of the city,” said McKoy
When asked if he thought the action taken to remove the members was discriminatory, McKoy responded, “Absolutely not.” He voted to remove the members along with council members Michael Jackson, Alex Mendez, Luis Velez, Shahin Khalique, and Maritza Davila.
Khan, Deeb, and Khondokar complained about racial prejudice against them and Muslim applicants who came before the board that approves development projects through what’s called variances. For example, “Whenever individuals bearing Islamic names such as ‘Mohammed or Ahmed’ appear before the board other non-Muslim members call on the three Muslim board members to recuse themselves due to ‘conflict of interest,’” reads the lawsuit filed on July 7th, 2017.
The three members accused Gerald Thaxton and Geraldine Rayfield of racial prejudice. Rayfield was not re-appointed and Thaxton remains on the board. Ironically, Rayfield’s daughter Karen, a police officer, has filed a lawsuit against the city alleging racial discrimination. The lawsuit also mentions secretary Margarita Rodriguez who allegedly disrespected Deeb.
Khan sought the council and the administration to intervene. For example, he wrote a letter dated Oct. 13, 2015 to the board’s attorney Marco Laracca complaining about “unfair treatment” given to applicants of Middle Eastern descent.
The three members tried to resolve the “racism and hostilities between” the board members through intervention from high ranking officials without success. The council held hearings months after Khan publicly made known the issues that had crippled the Board of Adjustment.
“The City Council never completed its investigation and retaliated against them for complaining about discrimination,” alleges the lawsuit.
Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, said the hearing should have been completed. He told his colleagues removing the members without finishing up the hearings would open the city up to lawsuits.
“I warned my colleagues,” said Morris. He also sent a memo to city officials with the same warning.
“That’s why I abstained. I knew they didn’t get their due process,” said Andre Saygh, 6th Ward councilman.
Sayegh blamed McKoy for the lawsuit. He said McKoy left the city open to legal actions by not completing the hearings. Some worried council members sought re-assurance from law director Domenick Stampone on possible litigation prior to the vote that removed the three members.
Stampone told the council it had no obligation to hold the hearings in the first place. He at the time said the ordinance states anyone who misses three or more consecutive meetings “shall” be removed from the board.
Sayegh and Cotton were not convinced and abstained from voting on removing the members.
Stampone did not immediately respond to a call for comment on Monday morning.
The lawsuit says the members suffered “severe emotional distress with physical manifestations, pain and suffering, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of income and benefits, loss of earning power, loss of opportunities for prospective employment, and other severe financial losses.”
Khondokar was the first Bengali-American to serve on the Paterson Board of Adjustment. Khan was second. “Both individuals are respected leaders in their community and have suffered as they are unable to explain to their community why they lost their positions and why after having been part of the fabric of the City for more than 70 years, the first opportunity for Bengali community leaders to serve on a public body ended because they spoke out against discrimination,” the lawsuit reads.
Khan’s alleged suffering led to him losing his hair, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit is seeking compensatory damages attorney fees, and reinstatement.
Robert Manetta of Warren-based law firm DiFrancesco, Bateman, Coley, Yospin, Kunzman, Davis, Lehrer & Flaum, which is representing the three ousted board members, declined to comment when contacted for this story.