NEWARK, N.J. (CN) - A New Jersey teacher who was fired over "get well" letters she had her students write to a convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal filed suit for reinstatement.
Marylin Zuniga was finishing out her first year as a third-grade teacher at Forest Street Elementary School in Orange, N.J., when she became the subject of a media firestorm this past April.
There is no mention of the controversy in the complaint she filed on June 26 in Essex County Superior Court over her firing, but articles from the spring show that parents complained to the school after learning that their children in Zuniga's class had written "get-well cards" to Mumia Abu-Jamal in prison after it was reported that he had been hospitalized because of complications from diabetes.
Zuniga posted to her Twitter account that "my 3rd graders wrote to Mumia to lift up his spirits as he is ill," followed by the hashtag "#freemumia."
Abu-Jamal is serving life in prison for killing Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981, though he was initially sentenced to death.
After FoxNews had a guest blasting Zuniga for the letter-writing assignment on April 9, school officials released an April 10 statement announcing Zuniga's suspension and insisting that they had "no prior knowledge" about the letters, and that Zuniga did not seek prior approval or notify parents about this "unauthorized activity."
Zuniga's lawsuit picks up on April 10, the day she claims to have received a letter from the Orange Public School District superintendent.
The letter allegedly informed Zuniga that the school board was meeting on April 14 "to discuss an investigation relative to [her] 'unprofessional conduct' as an employee of Orange Public Schools."
Zuniga says she informed the Board that she wished to have "the matter discussed in public at the meeting, and that many spoke in support of her at the meeting, before the board president cut them off as redundant.
The board allegedly tabled the matter, and Zuniga says her attorneys cited the Open Public Meetings Law in advance of the next hearing on May 12.
"Specifically, counsel requested that the board not place an arbitrary limit on the total time allotted for public participation, as the board had done at the April 14 meeting," the complaint states. "Counsel also alerted the board to the fact that a number of speakers intended to address the Board on Ms. Zuniga's behalf at the May 12 meeting."
Zuniga claims she made a public statement at the meeting and then "many members of the public made statements to the Board, the vast majority in express support of [her]."
When the board called for a vote on her employment status after these speeches, it allegedly did so by number to confuse her supporters, according to the complaint.
Zuniga also says that during the meeting "no member of the board discussed the substance of the resolution" and that "no member of the board publicly discussed Ms. Zuniga's employment status at any time."
"Following a roll-call vote, which resulted in unanimous approval, the Board adjourned the meeting," the complaint states.
Zuniga claims that "the board held a non-public meeting discussing the status of Ms. Zuniga's employment," and that she received a letter dated on May 13 in which "the superintendent of schools advised Ms. Zuniga that at the May 12 meeting, the Board, by majority vote, approved the recommendation to terminate Ms. Zuniga's employment contract with the Orange Public School District."
Zuniga says her termination violated the Open Public Meetings Act, which declares "the right of the public to be present at all meetings of public bodies, and to witness in full detail all phases of the deliberation, policy formulation, and decision making of public bodies," subject to limited exceptions."
"Defendant Board violated the OPMA by taking a vote on the status of Plaintiff Zuniga's employment after meeting privately and holding no public discussion among members of the Board on the matter at either the April 14 or May 12, 2015 meetings, or any other public meeting, even though Plaintiff Zuniga had requested that the discussion be held publicly," the complaint states.
Zuniga's lawsuit names the city of Orange and school board as defendants.
She seeks a judgment declaring the board's action to be "null and void." Zuniga is represented by Chigozie Onyema of Newark, N.J.
Superior Court Judge Stephanie Mitterhoff ordered Orange school and city officials to appear in court on Sept. 2 to respond to the lawsuit.
Both school and town officials declined a request to comment on Zuniga's allegations.
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