This is the first in a series of articles focusing on employment litigation brought by court employees in Pennsylvania.
Over the past decade, six of the state’s largest court administrations have agreed to pay a total of $1.28 million to resolve nearly 30 formal complaints by court employees.
The documents, obtained by The Legal through multiple public records requests, shed light on a topic that has largely remained outside public scrutiny and outline claims that have been made against sitting judges, court administrators and even a current member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
In one case, a Bucks County domestic relations supervisor allegedly smacked a female co-worker on the buttocks. The director of the Domestic Relations Division then allegedly threatened the victim’s co-workers with termination if they reported the incident.
In another case, a female Philadelphia judge allegedly fired her clerk after the clerk became pregnant, at one point allegedly remarking to the mother-to-be that she ”should only hire lesbians and men.”
In yet another case, a clerk in the filing department of the Chester County prothonotary’s office allegedly sexually harassed his female coworker, including showing her a photo of a nude man on his computer. The male clerk was later promoted to become the alleged victim’s supervisor, and, according to court papers, harassment, such as showing nude photos of women, continued. The alleged victim of the harassment was eventually fired for making complaints.
These allegations and dozens more stem from lawsuits that clerks, tipstaff, court masters, probation officers and other employees from some of the state’s largest court systems filed against the courts in recent years. In total, 27 claims were filed by court employees over the past decade, with most ending up in federal court and several others resolving before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The types of cases range from sexual harassment and racial discrimination to Equal Pay violations and failure to adhere to the Family Medical Leave Act. The documents do not show any particular pattern of conduct by higher-ups in court systems across Pennsylvania, and several employment attorneys said it is difficult to determine the strength or severity of the claims based on the settlement amounts.
Employment attorney Patricia Pierce of Greenblatt, Pierce, Funt and Flores, who has represented employees with claims against courts, said that, when it comes to the total amount courts have paid out over the past decade, she is not surprised at the number, despite the lengthy time frame.
Pierce, who filed one of the claims detailed in this report, said the economic claims can be limited if the person was only out of work for a short time, the employee’s salary was not high, or the employee planned to retire soon. And on top of that, the claims are complicated by a sovereign immunity, which bars many types of claims that might otherwise go forward against a non-governmental agency.
“Employment law as a whole is a labyrinth that one has to navigate very carefully to ensure that you’ve done what you need to do to exhaust the administrative remedies and plead the right claims,” Pierce said. “But, then there’s also an overlay of governmental immunity that makes many of these cases very difficult to bring.”
Officials of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, which provides defense counsel to the court systems, declined to comment for this story.
According to the records obtained by The Legal, a total of 27 claims were filed and subsequently settled against courts in Philadelphia, Allegheny, Montgomery, Bucks, Chester and Delaware counties over the past ten years. One claim was also filed against the AOPC.
Philadelphia saw the most litigation, with a total of 13 settlements, according to the records. Seven of those claims ended at the EEOC phase, so little information, other than the amount the case settled for, was made publicly available. Those EEOC cases settled for as little as $800 and as much as $26,000.
The Allegheny Court system saw eight cases over the past ten years and ended up paying the largest amount out of any county over the past decade, with a total of $451,510.
According to the responses, Montgomery County did not make any payouts in connection with employment litigation over the past decade.
The alleged conduct ranges from the serious and troubling, to the seemingly unintentional and the somewhat bizarre, with one case stemming from claims that a domestic relations officer was retaliated against after reporting that former Bucks County Judge Alan Rubenstein was smoking in his chambers on two occasions. That case settled for $48,750 in 2009.
The largest settlement over the past 10 years, according to the records, came in the case Amoroso v. Bucks County, in which a domestic relations employee was allegedly sexually harassed by a superior. That case settled in 2015 for $175,000, with $105,000 going to the plaintiff and $70,000 being paid in attorney fees.
According to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, plaintiff Stacy Amoroso worked as a Domestic Relations officer when a male officer named Frank Filipovits allegedly smacked her on the buttocks. After Amoroso complained, the director of the Bucks County Domestic Relations Division, Laura LoBianco, who was also named as defendant, allegedly told Amoroso not to talk about the incident and threatened to fire Amoroso’s co-workers who witnessed the incident if they talked about it, the complaint said.
The complaint contended that Amoroso was subject to disparate treatment after that. According to the complaint, in 2010 Filipovitz became a supervisor in the office, and, that same year, Amoroso sought FMLA leave due to depression and anxiety. The complaint contended that Filipovitz used his position to discriminated and retaliate against Amoroso, raising allegedly frivolous performance issues, until she was fired in 2011.
Amoroso’s complaint alleged violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act, Equal Protection clause, the Americans with Disability Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Attorneys for Filipovitz and Amoroso both did not return a call seeking comment.
Suits Involving Judges
Although most claims involved employees who worked at agencies within the court system, such as the Department of Human and the Probation Department, two cases in Philadelphia involved judges, one of whom is now a justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The case Adair v. First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, raised claims against the court and court administrator, as well as state Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, who was the administrative judge of the Family Court division at the time. The case was brought by a master in the Family Court, who contended that Dougherty and other court officials denied her several employment opportunities because she was a white female.
The case raised race and gender discrimination claims and violations of the Equal Pay Act. It settled in 2012 for $50,000.
Dougherty had been sued in his capacity as the court administrator and was represented by the AOPC.
The other suit involving a judge stemmed from claims that Philadelphia Judge Ann Butchart discriminated against Divya Gupta after Gupta became pregnant.
According to the complaint Gupta filed in federal court, Gupta was hired as a law clerk, but became pregnant soon after. Butchart, the complaint said, had said her previous law clerk had been pregnant and had to take a sudden medical leave due to the complications. The complaint said Butchart, who is openly gay, said she should “only hire lesbians or men,” as law clerks. According to court papers, Butchart had specifically requested that Gupta to be in the office during her previous clerk’s maternity leave. Gupta was fired soon after. The case settled for $35,000.
Although Gupta’s lawsuit named Butchart, the First Judicial District was the only defendant sued. The AOPC was defense counsel in the case, and the FJD declined to comment about any specific cases.
Both Philadelphia and Allegheny County courts saw a significant portion of their employment litigation end at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which does not make its records public.
Several attorneys said that, given the difficulty in bringing these cases, they were not surprised by this trend.
“You also have to be thinking about the impact on the client. If there’s not a lot of out-of-pocket loss, why put their name in the public domain if you can resolve it early?” Pierce said.
According to Bailey & Ehrenberg attorney William Wilson, who was appointed to represent a claimant against a court system defendant, some plaintiffs may feel reluctant to sue an institution upholding the rule of law.
“Everyone would be hopeful that the court would be observing the law, so there might be some extra skepticism,” he said, speculating that a similar psychology might also be at play from the court officials, making them somewhat overconfident.
“I wonder if those of us involved in the legal system tend to think we don’t have biases because we know what the law is, and we don’t have to watch out for ourselves as much,” he said. “I wonder if that might occasionally cause court personnel to assume their not doing something wrong.”