Juris-Imprudence? Former Employee Claims High-Level Cabal at Baltimore’s District Court Perpetuates Longstanding Discrimination

by Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 12, 2014

A federal lawsuit’s claims of gender-based discrimination and retaliation at Baltimore City’s district court at Wabash Avenue may get ratcheted up to accuse high-level judges and administrators of more pervasive injustices, should a federal judge rule that the complaint may be amended. Included in the newly proposed charges is an allegation that Maryland District Court’s Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn recently quashed an investigation into the problems, which had been ordered by judge Barbara Waxman, the recently installed administrative judge of the Baltimore court. The court has been in upheaval with retirements and reassignments since the lawsuit first brought the issues to public light last year.

The initial lawsuit—a four-page handwritten document filed in Maryland federal court last February by Kim Sumner, a human-resources associate at the district court who remained in her job until resigning in January—claimed Maryland’s judiciary discriminated against her by “having a history of protecting” Lonnie P. Ferguson, the court’s longtime administrative clerk who has since retired. Sumner’s complaint called Ferguson, her supervisor, “a man in power with powerful friends” whose record of “being a sexual preditor [sic] of the women who work under him” was “condoned and has continued for many years.” Sumner’s experiences under Ferguson included an incident in 2010 when he gave her pornographic DVDs at work, and yet received only lenient discipline (“NSFW,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 8, 2014).

Since then, Sumner has found a lawyer, Gerardine Delambo, who on Feb. 27 asked the judge in the case to approve the filing of an amended complaint—a 93-page document claiming “that the leadership of the District Court of Maryland allowed personnel management in its Baltimore City district to become ‘polluted’ with discrimination,” according to a press release emailed to City Paper by Delambo.

Sumner’s initial lawsuit made allegations against one defendant, named as “Maryland Judiciary/District Court of Maryland.” The amended complaint, if approved, would add seven more: Clyburn; associate judge John Hargrove Jr., who was the court’s administrative judge until, according to the press release, he “was removed” from the position in November; visiting judge Keith E. Mathews, who was the court’s administrative judge until March 2010, when he was succeeded by Hargrove; Ferguson, who the press release says was “forced” into retirement in November; administrative clerk Mary Abrams; division chief Angela Naylor; and deputy administrative clerk Lavone Grant, who the press release says was fired in November.

Sumner’s claims are being fought by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, whose spokesperson, David Paulson, wrote in an email, “sorry, but we can’t comment during the litigation,” a position repeated by Maryland judiciary spokesperson Terri Bolling, who assured City Paper that Mathews—the object of some of the amended complaint’s more serious allegations—would be alerted to City Paper’s request for comment. Delambo, too, declined to comment, other than to provide the four-page press release.

The press release says that “Clyburn and top court officials in Baltimore conspired to violate [Sumner’s] free-speech rights and to discriminate against her on the basis of her race and gender, and that they were motivated also by their ‘animus,’ or hostility, against whites and women who did not engage in sexual or romantic relationships with Mr. Ferguson or Judge Mathews.” Sumner is white, as is Waxman, while the proposed defendants are African-American—and Delambo’s press release says “the work force of the District Court for Baltimore City,” about 400 people, “is alleged by Ms. Sumner to be ‘98 percent black.’”

The amended complaint says that Mathews, while married and an associate judge and administrative judge, “engaged in relationships with female employees” at the court that “were sexual and/or romantic,” that other court employees “perceived” the relationships as “sexual and/or romantic and/or adulterous,” and that at least one of those relationships involved Mathews “exploiting and/or abusing the powers of his position” to “procure” favorable employment circumstances for the “female subordinates.” Thus, the complaint continues, Mathews “perpetrated quid-pro-quo sexual harassment and/or unlawful discrimination—on the basis of race, gender, age, marital status, and/or other nonmerit factors—against qualified individuals” who were “denied the advancement of their employment interests to which they were entitled by reason of their legitimate qualifications.”

When a “subordinate male supervisor” confronted Mathews over this while he was administrative judge, the complaint contends that “Mathews responded by stating, ‘I don’t give a fuck’ about the impact” of his “improper behavior, which continued undiminished.”

As for the quashed investigation Waxman ordered into Sumner’s allegations, the amended complaint says the newly installed administrative judge started it because she was aware of Sumner’s lawsuit and “was aware also of the history of misconduct” by Mathews and Ferguson “involving abuse of the powers of their respective offices.” After it began, including “interviews of at least four employees,” Clyburn caught wind of it and ordered it to “be halted,” while also telling Waxman to give her subordinate, administrative clerk Abrams, “freedom to manage personnel matters.”

Clyburn’s directive, the amended complaint continues, “contrasted with his substantially more deferential treatment of [Waxman’s] two black male predecessors,” Hargrove and Mathews, and “constitutes invidious discrimination on the basis of gender.” Furthermore, the amended complaint continues, Clyburn’s treatment of Waxman is meant “to preserve and leave unredressed a longstanding pattern of invidiously discriminatory personnel actions” at the court and “to preclude any action or disclosures” that could support Sumner’s claims.

The amended complaint also alleges that Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), whose wife, Catherine Curran O’Malley, is a Baltimore City district court judge, “has for years been personally aware of the above-described misconduct” of Mathews, Clyburn, and Hargrove, “and has chosen not to exercise his substantial power or prestige to bring about meaningful redress of that misconduct and its impact upon the efficiency and morale” of the court’s employees.

Last August, Sumner’s case was reassigned from Maryland U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake to Joseph R. Goodwin, a West Virginia U.S. District Court judge. The move may have been due to the fact that a material witness in Sumner’s case—Baltimore City District Court Judge Devy Patterson Russell—is the wife of Maryland U.S. District Court Judge George Levi Russell. Judge Devy Patterson Russell’s affidavit in Sumner’s case claims that the Baltimore City district court is beset with “gender based discrimination, harassment and/or hostile work environment,” and discloses that in 2012 she filed a complaint against judge Hargrove with the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, which disciplines judges.

According to the press release, one of the reasons Sumner resigned from her job on Jan. 3 was that “she learned that the judiciary leadership intended to ‘hide’ Mr. Ferguson” at a “‘secret’ worksite unknown to the public and the media,” enabling him to “continue to draw a salary of $115,000 per year,” so “she felt that her superiors thus viewed her as an adversary and that she would continue to be subjected to retaliation” and “would have no future in the court system.”

Whether Sumner’s amended complaint goes forward depends on a pending decision by Goodwin, after the Maryland assistant attorney general defending the Maryland judiciary, Michelle McDonald, files a response due by March 17. Delambo’s press release quotes “the rule governing such amendments” as saying that federal trial courts “should freely give leave when justice so requires.”

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