Judge Hit With $1.1 Million Verdict Over Firing Jewish Employee
She alleged her First Amendment free exercise right was violated.
FEB 6, 2023 | REPUBLISHED BY LIT: FEB 6, 2023
On Friday, a jury awarded Kimberly Edelstein — a former staff attorney and magistrate in Ohio — $1.1 million for her claims against Butler County Judge Greg S. Stephens. The award, which consists of $835,000 in back pay, $250,000 in compensatory damages, and $35,000 in punitive damages, was over allegations Edelstein, a Jewish attorney, was fired for requesting time for the Jewish High Holidays. The jury found Edelstein’s First Amendment right of free exercise was violated.
Edelstein worked for Judge Stephens’s predecessor for over eight years, and was hired by Stephens when he took over that seat. As reported by Law360, the claim arises from Edelstein’s request for time off in 2016:
She told Judge Stephens in July 2016 that she needed to take eight non-consecutive days off the following October for the High Holidays. Edelstein claims the judge yelled at her, angrily saying “holy cow, eight days,” court filings stated.
Edelstein said Judge Stephens calmed down after she explained the days were work restricted and that the previous judge let her take the days off, waving her away and saying “fine,” the filings said.
However, according to court filings, Judge Stephens took steps to fire Edelstein the following day. Her termination was was finalized in August 2016. The following year, Edelstein filed her lawsuit alleging her free exercise rights were violated.
The defendant’s attorney, Linda L. Woeber, said of the verdict, “we strongly believe the evidence did not support the verdict and we are considering our options.” The jury found in Stephens’s favor that Edelstein’s 14th Amendment rights were not violated as a result of her termination.
Rules for thee, not for me? Jury awards judge’s staff attorney a $1.1M religious discrimination verdict.
FEB 6, 2023 | REPUBLISHED BY LIT: FEB 6, 2023
I did a double take when I received an email alert late Friday with the subject line: “BREAKING: Ohio Judge Hit With $1.1M Verdict For Firing Jewish Staff Atty.”
Sure enough, a jury awarded $1,120,000 ($835,000 in back pay, $250,000 in compensatory damages, and $35,000 in punitive damages) to an Ohio judge’s former staff attorney and magistrate who sued her old boss for religious discrimination.
She represented herself.
According to this report from Law360’s Eric Heisig, the plaintiff was fired shortly after her employer initially resisted giving her time off for the Jewish High Holidays:
[Plaintiff] told [the judge] in July 2016 that she needed to take eight non-consecutive days off the following October for the High Holidays.
[Plaintiff] claims the judge yelled at her, angrily saying “holy cow, eight days,” court filings stated.
[Plaintiff] said [the judge] calmed down after she explained the days were work restricted and that the previous judge let her take the days off, waving her away and saying “fine,” the filings said.
Still, [the judge] decided to fire [Plaintiff] “almost immediately after her request” and took steps to do so the following morning, according to court filings.
She was officially fired on Aug. 1, 2016, and she sued the following year, alleging that the termination was because she tried to practice her religion by taking the High Holidays off.
The plaintiff asserted a state law claim for religious discrimination.
But, the jury found in favor of the judge.
Instead, she prevailed under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause.
Effectively, the jury concluded not only that the defendant’s actions deprived the plaintiff of her constitutional right to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment, but the defendant acted maliciously or in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights.
This decision is anomalous for many reasons.
It’s the first time I can recall a jury verdict against a judge in a free exercise of religion case, and First Amendment case would have no legs against private employers.
However, the religious discrimination claim could.
Title VII, the federal counterpart, makes it unlawful to discharge an individual because of their religion.
Employers also have a duty to accommodate the sincerely-held beliefs of employees when doing so will enable them to perform the essential functions of the job without creating undue hardship for the business.
This jury verdict reaffirms that no one is above the law on workplace discrimination.
Even the ones who wear the black robes and bang the gavel.