SOMERSET, NJ - Officials in Franklin Township like to plug the town’s diversity as a point of pride. They say it’s one of the most diverse areas in the state and that people of all backgrounds are welcome in the town.

But a lawsuit filed against the township claims the reality may not be so charming.

The suit alleges that township officials tried to block a black woman from living in the house she built by deliberately delaying her certificate of occupancy, issuing exorbitant fines and harassing her and her family. A certificate of occupancy is a document provided by the town that proves construction has been completed in accordance with local and state regulations, according to township officials.

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The lawsuit, brought by a local resident, Patrice James, names as defendants Township Manager Robert Vornlocker, Public Works Manager Carl Hauk, Township Attorney Louis N. Rainone, Construction Official Vincent Lupo, and others. 

James, who works in New York City, was living in an apartment in Brooklyn with her young daughter when she decided to move her family to Franklin.

When she began the process of building a home on a lot she purchased on Sinclair Boulevard, she said things went smoothly. It wasn’t until township officials met her in person that things took a turn for the worse.

According to James, township officials told her they thought she was a doctor and began asking where she got her money.

“The consensus of the town was I shouldn’t have what I have,” James said. “That was the beginning of my problems.”

Construction on the home began in 2010, and she applied for the certificate of occupancy in 2012, while she was pregnant with her second child.

James didn’t receive the document until September 2013, by which time she says she already spent thousands of dollars jumping through the township’s hoops.

Officials quoted multiple nonexistent ordinances as grounds for delaying the certificate of occupancy and “cited unfounded law to perpetuate intentional acts of discrimination against James,” according to an amended court filing from May.

A certificate of occupancy can be denied by the township, however, a temporary certificate of occupancy can be obtained if the construction official and the respective subcode official find that the structure may be occupied with "no danger of life safety," according to Lupo. James said she was never offered a temporary certificate of occupancy.

"I didn't know there was such a thing as a temporary certificate of occupancy available to me," James said. "I already passed all of my final inspections when I applied for the certificate, therefore I would think my home was ready to be occupied. No one advised me otherwise."

Questions about James' lawsuit were directed to Vornlocker, who declined to comment citing the pending litigation.

Adrian Johnson, an attorney with Johnson & Associates who is representing James, described the behavior of officials as targeting James and hiding behind ordinances to issue penalties against her.

"There were instances where she did pay for her certificate of occupancy and other things that were required of her and then those payments were denied or not accepted,” Johnson said. “Then they smacked her with a fine. This was a process she went through for many months.”

At one point James declared a hardship and advised the town she was going to move into the house, and as a result, was issued a fine of more than $25,000 for living in her home without the necessary documentation.

In total, James said she was fined more than $70,000 for issues ranging from accusations of misrepresenting herself to moving into her home without a certificate of occupancy.

James said she wasn't made aware of the fines until she was called to the municipal building to pick up her co. 

"Instead of picking up my CO, I was hit with fines," James said. "I was told that I needed to pay my fines before the CO would be issued to me."

James says she eventually picked up her CO, about a month later after she paid the fines. She described the process as a nightmare that she begged the township to end.

"Never in my life do I beg like I went in there and begged to just give me the certificate,” she said. “I was almost ready to have my second child, but I couldn’t get into the house. I had given up my apartment in Brooklyn, I was staying with my sister and I had one three-year-old kid and now I’m pregnant with a second one and nowhere to go.”

James’ lawsuit says her race played a role in the way the township handled the issues it had with her property.

“The way she was treated, there was a racial undertone,” said Johnson. “Why was she singled out? What was it about her that made her so uniquely different than any other individual that would have been applying for a CO?”

James remains optimistic and feels she made the right choice to move to Franklin Township.

"I think this is a great town, that is why I am fighting to change things here," James said. "I just want to live in peace and raise my children in the home I worked hard to build."

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