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It’s rare for the Connecticut Judicial Branch to reveal itself as a workplace with “sick buildings,” tearful battles between employees and supervisors, or a worker who took off for weeks of unexplained absence. The story of a court employee using insider knowledge to “game” the system for a criminal defendant would never be trumpeted in a Judicial Branch press release. But Mercy O’Bourke’s employment suit does all of that, revealing a dysfunctional facet of the institution. O’Bourke, a former court interpreter, claimed the New Haven, Conn., courthouse at 121 Elm St. gave her colds and allergic reactions. A doctor gave her a note that said the courthouse had poor air quality and recommended she be transferred elsewhere. O’Bourke contended that New Britain was too far, and temporarily worked at the Milford and Derby courthouses. Two years ago, she was fired, at the age of 58. Though she has qualified for retirement pay, it is only $560 per month, and would have been about $2,000 if she’d worked to age 65. O’Bourke fired back, suing the courts on the grounds that she was effectively terminated for having a disability. But New Haven Judge Trial Referee Frank S. Meadow earlier this month concluded in O’Bourke v. The Connecticut Judicial Branch that the plaintiff had no valid claims, and ruled for the judicial branch. Its defense was handled by Assistant Attorney General Antoria Howard, and detailed three broad non-discriminatory reasons for O’Bourke’s firing. WORKPLACE VIOLENCE? O’Bourke had been an interpreter for the court system since 1983, and served statewide at the beginning. By the late 1990s, she primarily worked in New Haven. Starting in 1997, she drew the attention of disciplinarian Ronald Maccio, manager of Administrative Services for the Superior Court. Two judges had complained about O’Bourke’s unavailability, and she’d taken at least five “sick days” without a medical excuse in the previous year. Macchio recommended three days’ suspension without pay. In her 14 years of service, O’Bourke conceded she’d been disciplined 28 times, according to Meadow’s decision. On July 21, 2000, after she’d been off work without explanation since July 5, O’Bourke’s work problems escalated. Frank Cassello, director of human resources for the Judicial Department, called and said O’Bourke would go to New Britain. At first, she accepted the news, until it became clear the assignment was permanent, without mileage reimbursement. Cassello, in a letter made available to Meadow, recounted that she called him “lower than low” and said “you’ll pay for this” in a “very threatening voice.” That triggered a hearing the following month under the Judicial Branch’s Violence in the Workplace Policy. At the hearing, O’Bourke remembered being “an unhappy camper,” according to her testimony. She, however, denied any threatening statements were made. Testimony also was taken about her allegedly disobeying a judge’s policy that she remain at her workstation, and that she inform the court clerk every time she left. Beeper contact was not adequate. PRECARIOUS POSITION A third scenario put forth by the defense, which Cassello later characterized as “unpardonable,” involved a friend, Kevin Wright, who was on release from a criminal case under strict curfew restrictions. The New Haven state’s attorney’s office complained in May 2000 about events that led to Wright’s parole. By O’Bourke’s admission, she contacted the bail commissioner, who said that no one on a curfew could be out past curfew without a parent. Testifying at the aforementioned hearing, O’Bourke replied “yes, I do remember but . . . the Bail Commissioner said as long as the mother knows that he is with you then that is alright.” It was not all right, and Wright was later jailed for violating curfew. Cassello’s stinging letter discharging O’Bourke was appended as a footnote in the case. He said her threats to Macchio “are of grave concern.” Her “inability to follow direct orders by a judge is inexcusable and disrupting to the Court.” And finally, “your actions surrounding Kevin Wright are unpardonable,” Cassello wrote. “You have used your knowledge of the court system to obtain information from a Bail Commissioner and in the process, you managed to distort the information that was given you to benefit your own interests.” In the end, Cassello concluded, “Mr. Wright paid the price for your actions, by his incarceration.” O’Bourke is represented by John R. Williams, of New Haven’s Williams & Pattis. By press time, Williams had not returned a message placed to him.

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