Judicial nominee played role in Suffolk registry mess

By Andrew Ryan
APRIL 12, 2017

Help for the long-troubled Suffolk Probate office came from Worcester County, where a probate court employee named Leslie Girardi had worked for a decade.

A top state probate administrator sent Girardi to help Suffolk Register Felix D. Arroyo get his dysfunctional office on track in September 2015. But Girardi had a history.

She had been put on paid leave in Worcester in May of that year, according to a document obtained by the Globe. Two people with knowledge of the situation said she had used threats and vulgar language, and that officials had pushed to have her fired.

By early 2017, Arroyo would be suspended from his job. Girardi would be accused in an investigative report of belittling her Suffolk co-workers, shouting obscenities within earshot of the public, and using a racial slur to refer to an African-American case manager.

The probate administrator, Linda M. Medonis, has been nominated by Governor Charlie Baker for a judgeship. Top court officials defended and praised Medonis on the eve of her scheduled nomination hearing Wednesday before the Governor’s Council, where the scrutiny will include her tenure running statewide operations of the Probate and Family Court Department.

The bouncing of Girardi from probate registry to probate registry — she is now an office manager in the Bristol registry — illustrates that the problems in the state’s probate system extend far beyond Suffolk County.

The episode also sheds some light on the career of the governor’s judicial nominee.

Before her 2013 appointment as deputy court administrator, Medonis was an attorney with more than 25 years of experience in domestic relations and probate litigation.

Justice Angela M. Ordoñez, chief of the Probate and Family Court, issued a statement Tuesday supporting Medonis’s judicial nomination and her work in probate.

“I was involved in all of the major decisions involving Suffolk Probate and Family Court Registry,” Ordoñez said. “Any suggestion that Linda Medonis took any action that I did not authorize and approve is incorrect. I completely stand by Linda Medonis’ work as deputy court administrator. She has my full confidence as a partner in justice.”

Both Medonis and Girardi declined interview requests by the Globe.

When Baker nominated Medonis to be a judge on March 22, the press release noted that since September 2013 she has been “responsible for the statewide operations of the Probate and Family Court Department.”

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Baker noted that applicants for judicial openings are reviewed by the state Judicial Nominating Commission. “Linda Medonis was nominated based on her depth of knowledge and years of experience in the courts and the JNC is not familiar with details of personnel allegations,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Medonis’s office at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston is a few blocks from her largest challenge: Suffolk Probate, which has been plagued by mismanagement and scandal. A few months after Medonis started, Register Patricia Campatelli was suspended for allegedly assaulting an employee after a holiday party. Campatelli never admitted any wrongdoing and argued that she was a victim of unsubstantiated rumors.

Campatelli never returned from suspension. That left court administrators in charge of Suffolk Probate for all of 2014. Arroyo defeated Campatelli and took office in 2015.

The court suspended Arroyo with pay Feb. 3 for what administrators have described as a “procedural meltdown” that “created chaos.” Administrators performed an assessment that found scores of missing files, hundreds of thousands of dollars in unprocessed checks, and an indifference to the needs of the public, whose cases in court were often delayed as a result.

Amid the tumult, Medonis wrote to Arroyo, telling him that she would be sending Girardi to work in his office to help turn things around.

“I am going to meet with Leslie this afternoon and arrange for her to come down to Suffolk to go over a potential plan,” Medonis wrote in a Sept. 21, 2015, e-mail obtained by the Globe.

The trial court provided documents Tuesday showing that Ordoñez, the chief justice, formally requested Girardi’s appointment to Suffolk.

This decision was made despite the fact that in Worcester Girardi had been placed on administrative leave because of allegations of threatening behavior that included referring to the new register with a vulgar slur, according to two people with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Her suspension came shortly after the new register, Stephanie K. Fattman, took office.

“I campaigned on reforming the Worcester court to bring strong management to the judicial system,” Fattman said in an e-mail when asked about Girardi’s departure from Worcester. “While I cannot comment specifically on personnel matters, when unacceptable behaviors, such as sexual harassment, racism, vulgar language and threats of violence have occurred, I have not tolerated that behavior and have taken the necessary steps to discipline and remove the employee.”

In a statement Tuesday, Harry Spence, the trial court’s top administrator, confirmed some of Girardi’s alleged behavior but said it didn’t warrant termination.

“She is a union employee and had allegedly made a crude comment to a colleague,” Spence said. “Under collective bargaining, this does not rise to the standards for termination.”

Despite her alleged behavior in Worcester, Girardi came to Suffolk Probate with a promotion. She became a “temporary assistant register.” Payroll records show her annual salary increased by $15,000 to nearly $104,000.

An Arroyo spokesman said court administrators described Girardi as an expert with significant experience. But documents from an investigative report allege that Girardi made things worse in Suffolk Probate. Within months of her arrival, court administrators launched an investigation after a judicial case manager filed a May 2016 complaint that described “a hostile and discriminatory work environment.”

Documents show that one employee told investigators that Girardi stood at the public counter and used “the f-bomb” and, in earshot of the public, used crude language to belittle a co-worker. Another employee accused Girardi of conspiring with longtime Suffolk employees to undermine Arroyo, an allegation a court investigator discounted.

Another employee said Girardi “outwardly agreed” when a longtime white employee in Suffolk complained and used an ethnic slur and said Arroyo was hiring Hispanic employees to “do our jobs!” Girardi responded, according to the report, “They’re all being hired by him [Register Arroyo] because they’re Spanish.”

“The recent transfer of Leslie Girardi from the Worcester Probate and Family Court . . . further exacerbated the racial divide among staff,” the case manager wrote in the May 2016 complaint that urged “harsh disciplinary action including termination” and suggested transferring employees engaged in racially offensive behavior was not “an acceptable option.”

Girardi was out on maternity leave as court administrators investigated the accusations of racism and hostility. In August, despite the pending allegations, court administrators sent Girardi back to work at Suffolk. She would be working alongside the employees she was accused of harassing.

“Leslie Girardi will resume her responsibilities as a temporary assistant register upon her return from her family leave,” Medonis and Ordoñez, the chief justice, wrote in an Aug. 19, 2016, letter to Arroyo.

In November 2016, a court investigator concluded in a letter to court administrators that Girardi was “inappropriate to serve as a manager in the Registry,” according to documents. The investigator described a “credible but reluctant” witness who heard Girardi use a racial slur to describe an African-American case manager.

Trial court administrators transferred Girardi out of Suffolk in December 2016. Two court employees said they were told of her departure by Arroyo’s temporary replacement, Terri Klug Cafazzo, at a meeting of Suffolk Probate employees. Cafazzo announced that Girardi had left to work on a special project, according to the court employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak.

Girardi now works in Bristol Probate. Her title is office manager, and she is paid just over $79,000, according to a court spokeswoman.

Arroyo’s spokesman, Patrick Keaney, issued a statement opposing Medonis’s nomination — in part because of her role in moving Girardi to the Suffolk office.

“We do not believe that Linda Medonis has the temperament or judgement required to be a judge, or to serve in her current role,” Keaney wrote in an e-mail. “We intend to make our feelings clear to all who will listen, including the governor and the Governor’s Council.”