A New Jersey Superior Court Judge says her mental health has deteriorated and she needs to retire on disability. But the state's Judiciary Department is keeping her on the bench, claiming she doesn't qualify for benefits.
In August, Judge Deborah Gross-Quatrone filed a federal lawsuit, accusing the judiciary of denying her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). According to the complaint, a neurologist found Gross-Quatrone suffered "brain atrophy," which could limit her cognition.
"I am concerned her atrophy is not age-related," wrote Dr. Ciro Randazzo, a Board Certified Neurosurgeon who examined Gross-Quatrone's MRI. "I do feel her cognitive abilities are limited and she should not make any further judicial decisions."
Despite that medical opinion, the state's Administrative Office of the Courts is standing by its decision, denying Gross-Quatrone's application for disability retirement.
In June, Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts, wrote that Gross-Quatrone's application "did not meet the statutory standard for a disability" and that she should return to work hearing domestic violence cases in Essex County.
Gross-Quatrone declined comment on the lawsuit.
Her attorney, Ralph Ferrara, said his client was completely unaware of her mental illness until she became embroiled in a workplace dispute with another judge and was later suspended for secretly recording that judge in her chambers.
After the suspension, Ferrara said his client was ordered by the court to undergo a forensic neuropsychological exam. In the complaint, Gross-Quatrone alleges the state is withholding the results of that court-ordered exam. Ferrara said his client sought out her own doctors' opinions -- and was stunned to learn about the brain atrophy.
"This hit her like a ton of bricks," Ferrara said. "She has seen a neutral doctor and then two other doctors prior to that, all of them confirming that she has this disorder and that in their opinion she should not be making judicial decisions."
In court filings, the Administrative Office of the Courts denied violating Gross-Quatrone's rights under the ADA and argued federal courts have no jurisdiction to intervene in the case.
"We cannot comment on pending litigation," said Peter McAleer, a spokesman for the courts. "However, Judge Gross-Quatrone correctly states that she applied for a disability retirement pension. The Supreme Court determined that she failed to meet the threshold to certify her alleged disability to the governor. Judge Gross-Quatrone was advised that she should return to work. She remains a Superior Court judge receiving full pay."
The dispute over Gross-Quatrone's disability retirement application leaves the state's Judiciary Department in an ethical quandary. Regardless of whether her brain condition meets the legal standard for a disability, some legal scholars fear attorneys who may come before the judge could be disadvantaged if they aren't aware of Gross-Quatrone's own assertion that she is cognitively compromised.
"Litigants come before a judge who has announced, 'My mind doesn't function well enough to be a judge,' and yet she is their judge. It seems to me at that point you have to say she should stop hearing cases," said ProfessorJohn Leubsdorf, a Rutgers expert on legal ethics.
Ferrara says he asked the judiciary to allow his client to disclose her medical diagnosis to litigants, but a letter from the court warned Gross-Quatrone should not advise attorneys or litigants that she is mentally incapable of hearing cases, calling such a disclosure "inaccurate" and "inappropriate."
The warning went on to say Gross-Quatrone would be subject to discipline under the state's Code of Judicial Conduct if she informed people in her courtroom of her mental illness.
Although the judiciary ordered Gross-Quatrone back to the courtroom on June 29, for the last four months she has obtained doctors' notes requesting medical leave, allowing her to avoid deciding cases. Her attorney says he's not sure what she'll do if she's forced to put the robe back on.
"If I'm bringing my client before a judge, I would want to know if that person had issues concerning that person's ability to make cognitive judicial decisions," Ferrara said. "Wouldn't anybody?"