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Judge Faulted for Assigning Secretary to Do Personal TasksSecretary ordered to put tasks for judge's husband before court duties
A New York judicial conduct commission has recommended a Family Court judge be censured for repeatedly requiring her secretary to perform personal chores, including baby-sitting her children and typing documents and correspondence for her husband. Judge Dandrea L. Ruhlmann's misconduct took place in 2004, her first year on the bench. The judge told the panel that, at the time, she did not realize the assignments were improper. Her ignorance of the rule did not affect the commission's decision.
New York Law Journal2009-02-26 12:00:00 AM
The Commission on Judicial Conduct has recommended that a Monroe County, N.Y., Family Court judge be censured for repeatedly requiring her secretary to perform personal chores, including baby-sitting her children and typing documents and correspondence for her husband.
Judge Dandrea L. Ruhlmann's misconduct took place in 2004, her first year on the bench. The judge told the panel that, at the time, she did not realize that the assignments were improper.
Her ignorance of the rule, however, did not affect the commission's decision.
"It has been stipulated that respondent's actions arose out of her 'mistaken' belief that her secretary's duties included providing the judge with assistance on personal matters. Such a 'mistaken' view is neither mitigating nor excusable, since judges should know that such conduct is wrong," the unanimous panel wrote in its unsigned determination, Matter of Ruhlmann.
"Routinely using court staff for extra-judicial purposes is improper regardless of whether the employee consents or performs such tasks without protest. It is disruptive to court administration and sets a poor example for court personnel. It is a breach of the public trust and damages public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary."
Ruhlmann was elected in November 2003, and her term began Jan. 1, 2004. Shortly thereafter she appointed a childhood friend, Kimberly Keskin, to be her secretary. The two had been close for more than 37 years. Keskin had frequently looked after the future judge's two young children, who knew her as Aunt Kimmy, without compensation.
During Keskin's eight months as Ruhlmann's secretary, the judge repeatedly required her to work on personal matters, such as looking after the children or typing documents for her husband, Raymond Ruhlmann III, a Monroe County assistant district attorney.
Keskin kept notes the entire time.
On nine occasions, according to the commission's decision, the judge asked Keskin to look after her 3-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter during work hours. A few of those occasions were emergencies -- a sick child, an injured arm -- others were not.
Keskin also compiled a list of seven occasions in which the judge required her to type documents or correspondence on behalf of Mr. Ruhlmann, such as updating his resume or sending an e-mail requesting an application, during business hours.
On more than one occasion, Judge Ruhlmann ordered Keskin to put the typing duties before her court responsibilities. In one instance, according to Keskin, the judge adjourned an adoption proceeding for two weeks so Keskin could devote her time to Mr. Ruhlmann's work.
In a Sept. 13, 2004, meeting with Judge Ruhlmann, Keskin objected to being told to put the judge's personal work before her own court duties. The judge told Keskin it was her job to do the work given.
Keskin secretly recorded the entire conversation.
Later that week, Keskin turned the tape over to the administrative judge for the Seventh Judicial District, Supreme Court Justice Thomas Van Strydonck.
Judge Ruhlmann fired Keskin the same day, purportedly for recording the conversation and accessing the judge's computer and deleting documents.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct served Ruhlmann with a complaint containing four charges, all stemming from her assignments to Keskin. In addition to the charges regarding the personal assignments, the judge was charged with telling Keskin to wrongfully access a court database on behalf of her husband.
Judge Ruhlmann and the commission agreed to a stipulation on both the facts and the recommended punishment -- censure, the second most severe form of discipline, after removal.
"Respondent now realizes that ... she grossly misunderstood the role of a judge's personally appointed confidential secretary," the commission wrote. "Respondent now realizes it was improper for her to have had Ms. Keskin perform secretarial work for her husband as part of her court duties, let alone put such work ahead of court business."
The panel agreed that the most appropriate punishment was a "severe public sanction."
"We believe that a public censure reflects the seriousness with which we view such misconduct, and we will not hesitate to consider the sanction of removal in the future if such conduct is repeated," the panel concluded.
If the judge does not seek a review of the determination by the Court of Appeals within 30 days, the censure will become official, and the judge will be the 82nd full-time judge censured since 1978.
Keskin also filed labor actions in both the Rochester Court of Claims and the U.S. District Court for the Western District against the Unified Court System.
She settled those actions for $35,000 and a position as an assistant court analyst for the Monroe courts. Her salary was $38,355 in 2004; she presently earns $45,830. The judge was not found liable, nor did she pay any damages.
Judge Ruhlmann earned a J.D. from Washington & Lee University in 1987 and worked in private practice for the next 12 years. From 1999 until she was elected to the bench in 2003, she served as a matrimonial referee. She earned $125,600 in 2004 and, like all New York state court judges, has not since received a raise.
The commission's chief administrator, Robert H. Tembeckjian, said that stipulations on both the facts and the discipline are common and made sense for the commissioners in the present case.
"They accepted her explanation, but ... she should have known better," Tembeckjian said. "Clearly, she should have known better."
Judge Ruhlmann's attorney, Lawrence J. Andolina of Trevett Cristo Salzer & Andolina in Rochester, N.Y., did not return a call for comment.