April 30, 2014
Stamford Probate Court clerk Kristen Rich recently testified in Hartford that probate court workers need the protections offered by a union, in support of a bill that would have allowed her and other probate workers to organize.
Then she was fired.
She said she was retaliated against for publicly supporting the bill, which failed to get out of committee. Her former boss, Judge Gerald Fox Jr., says she was not.
Rich filed a complaint with the state Labor Board claiming she was fired for trying to organize a union, and is fighting for the right to collect unemployment insurance.
“They stole my job. The job that I loved,” she said, a few days after filing a complaint with the state Labor Board. “They embarrassed me. Stole my opportunity.”
If it is determined that she was targeted after supporting a union movement, then it will be a black eye for a probate system that has had to undergo drastic changes in recent years after financial problems forced it out of extremely dated practices. One of those changes was to more than halve the number of probate courts in the state, and that in large part is what led to the unionization effort.
Not just estates and trusts
The Probate Court system is more than 300 years old in Connecticut. Its elected judges primarily oversee decedents’ estates and trusts, but they also handle issues affecting children, the elderly, people with intellectual disabilities and those with psychiatric problems, including the appointment of guardians, emancipating minors and the sterilization of adults with intellectual disabilities.
For years the probate courts operated as nearly independent political fiefdoms. In 2005, financial problems brought the system under very heavy scrutiny involving legislative hearings that would eventually lead to an overhaul of it.
At the time, John H. Langbein, Sterling professor of law and legal history at Yale law schools, called Connecticut’s system a disgrace and scandal blaming the multiplicity of courts, use of people who are not legally trained as judges, allowing practicing attorneys to sit as judges, incentive fee system and the self-serving opposition to change mounted by probate judges to protect their turf.
Some of those issues were addressed in 2009 legislation, which reduced the number of courts from more than 100 to 54 and also requiring judges to be admitted to the bar.
Judge Paul Knierim, the state Probate Court Administrator, said those reforms have helped the court modernize and other reforms are still being made.
He said the reduction in the number of courts and the centralizing of payroll and other back office support positions has saved the state millions of dollars, and now the probate system is no longer losing money. About 75 percent of the system is covered by fees and 25 percent from the general fund.
Reform helps spark union drive
But the consolidation led to job security concerns among court staff members. They serve at the pleasure of the judges, who are elected, so theoretically, when new judges enter office they can dismiss all the current staff at the court and bring in their own people. Some court workers have said they lack job security because of this system.
Knierim took issue with this claim, explaining that judges rely on the experience of existing staff when they come into office. Their next election ultimately hinges on how they are perceived in the community and so having good staff is one of the keys to being re-elected, he said.
Wages and raises were another concern that was exacerbated by the consolidation. Before the modernization of the courts, judges had discretion over wage rates and hiring, and pay rates were different all over the state. When the courts were consolidated and the pay rates along with them, those workers earning higher amounts in similar positions then found it difficult to get raises under the new system. Although the consolidation of courts occurred in 2011, Knierim said the courts are still working on providing a new merit-based raise system that would be standardized across the state.
Although the judges no longer have discretion over wages, they do over hiring. And that fact is central to what spurred Rich to testify in support of proposed bill 5066.
She was growing worried about her future in the office of Judge Gerald Fox Jr., Stamford’s probate judge, who is set to retire this year. Probate judges are not to hold office after the age of 70. Rich was also concerned by her relationship with her boss. She said the two have had differences and after several conversations believed she would lose her job when a new judge is elected.
It’s a job that she said she loved. “I felt like I was helping people. Like I was making a difference,” she said of the estate cases she worked.
The problem of raises was an issue too. After seven years working as an assistant clerk, she said her salary went from about $30,000 a year to just $31,000.
Sitting in the lobby of her apartment building on Washington Boulevard this week, Rich said with some irony that she originally started to look into a union as a way to protect her job and to provide some protections and access to better benefits for herself and other probate court workers.
She and staff from three other probate courts testified in support of the bill, and 15 other probate court workers sent letters of support. In her testimony, Rich said she no longer felt secure in her position due to the impending change in the judgeship and that the court system was not responding to the needs of staff. Others also testified to insecurity of their positions, lack of pay and loss of benefits when the probate court system consolidated in 2011.
Difference of opinion
She took a vacation day to testify on February 18. When she came back to work, a few days later, she said she was verbally attacked at her desk by a part-time clerk, and then the Chief ClerkRoselyn Ramist got involved in the interaction.
Ramist, who would not discuss the particulars of Rich’s firing, said she recalled the event differently and that Rich had an outburst. She agreed that she and Rich had had their difficulties, but she said it was neither those differences nor Rich’s interest in the union that led to her dismissal.
“She making a mountain out of a mole hill,” Ramist said of Rich.
But Rich said points to the court’s response to her application for unemployment insurance as evidence that her firing was a deliberate effort by the office to punish her for her support of the union. She showed two letters, one from Ramist and one from Fox, that confirmed her termination, and both were signed cordially wishing her well.
But now, the office is fighting her application to collect unemployment.
In order to collect unemployment insurance, a worker has to be dismissed, according to the State Labor Department. If that dismissal was for gross misconduct, then the person is not eligible to collect. Generally, a person who is fired because the employer is not satisfied with his or her work is still eligible for unemployment benefits and the burden of proof for misconduct is on the employer.
A union that has come to Rich’s aid, Connecticut Council 4, AFSCME AFL-CIO, supports Rich’s claim she was being punished. Council 4 filed the complaint with the State Board of Labor Relations on her behalf, identifying Rich as a lead union organizer.
“It’s very clear that Kristen was, in our view, retaliated against for exercising her rights,” said Larry Dorman, a Council 4 public affairs director.
Dorman said this is part of the larger fight on probate workers’ behalf. He said they are workers who have no rights or benefits other than what the judge gives them.
“She was lobbying to change the law with a bill as a private citizen,” he said.
Knierim, as head of the probate court system, is named in the suit, but said he has no knowledge of the specifics of the case and is filing to have it dismissed.
Judge Fox likewise denied that he fired Rich for union activities.
“She was not terminated for any union activity, period,” he said by phone Tuesday. He said he could not say why she was terminated, because it was a personnel matter.
He also debunked the idea there will be a massive change in staff when a new judge is elected in his place this November.
“That doesn’t happen,” he said. “An incoming judge would be well advised to retain the institutional memory of the clerks that are there.”
He paused and then added, “It’s rare that an employee is terminated.”
For Rich and the Council 4, they see this as the probate court judges trying to protect political fiefdoms that have come under assault in recent years and believe it’s an attempt to intimidate people.
Rich said it seems to have worked as people who were for the union are now “terrified.” AS for her, she said, she’s not backing down.
“I’m not lying about this,” she said.
Stamford court worker says union push led to firing
April 17, 2014