Suffolk registry workers describe racial hostility, sexual harassment

Andrew Ryan and Stephanie Ebbert
March 25, 2017

A Cape Verdean employee alleged that her co-workers called her a monkey. A white employee used a racial epithet to describe an African-American colleague. Another white worker loudly denounced new Spanish-speaking employees with a slur and complained they were “being hired to do our jobs” by their Latino boss.

Pervasive accusations of racial hostility and sexual harassment at the Suffolk Registry of Probate led one office worker to call last spring for an “immediate intervention” into the “deplorable and divisive” environment, according to an investigative report that had not previously been made public.

The investigation uncovered allegations that some longtime white court employees actively worked to “sabotage” the diversity efforts of the recently elected register, Felix D. Arroyo, who took office in January 2015. The allegations, if true, could help substantiate Arroyo’s claim that he has been the victim of a racially motivated campaign by an entrenched courthouse bureaucracy that resented his hiring of multilingual staff to serve a diverse public.

The investigative report, written by a diversity officer in the court system, does not exonerate Arroyo, who was suspended in February for what Trial Court officials described as “disarray and dysfunction” at the long-troubled Suffolk probate office. An investigator discounted at least one of the sabotage allegations and depicted Arroyo as an absent or aloof manager who did little to protect his new hires from the open hostilities of entrenched employees.

Three court employees who spoke with the Globe on the condition of anonymity disputed the report’s characterization of Arroyo. The employees, who support the suspended register, said he championed and defended workers of color. Arroyo encouraged them to file discrimination and harassment complaints, they said, but he was otherwise hamstrung by a bureaucracy in which authority is concentrated in Trial Court administrators.

The newly released report sheds more light on the troubled operations at the Probate Court, where court officials have documented what they describe as a “procedural meltdown”: 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.

The latest report suggests that the problems in Suffolk probate extend far beyond alleged mismanagement by Arroyo. The documents described the office as a “hostile and discriminatory work environment” that has long had an inappropriate and racially charged climate. The documents say that tensions increased exponentially with the election in November 2014 of Arroyo, a Latino who is the first person of color to serve as register.

Employees described co-workers using profanity at the public counter and mistreating customers who came to the registry seeking help with their divorces, child custody cases, adoptions, or relatives’ wills. Employees complained about the “juvenile atmosphere” of the 33-person office with high-school-like cliques and staff who “often acted like children.”

The investigative report was part of a trove of documents released last week that detailed severe disorder in the probate office. Court officials asked the Globe and other media outlets not to publish letters marked “confidential,” which they said had been sent inadvertently.

The Globe is publishing material from the confidential report because it catalogs rancor and chaos inside a government office intended to help the public navigate the delicate legal intricacies of paternity, divorce, and adoption. The Globe is not publishing the names of specific employees.

The Trial Court suspended Arroyo with pay Feb. 3, roughly two years into his term as register. He hired a lawyer and has argued that he inherited a dysfunctional office and that the court lacked the authority to suspend him as an elected official. An investigation into Arroyo’s leadership is expected to be complete in April.

In May 2016, 16 months after Arroyo took office, a court employee lodged the complaint about a “deplorable and divisive” environment, alleging that longtime staff were harassing four new employees with foreign-language skills whom Arroyo had hired to serve customers who don’t speak English.

Two months later, officials launched a probe that involved 47 interviews over six weeks, according to the documents. Investigators determined that a number of disciplinary charges were warranted on offenses that include sexual harassment and unlawful racial discrimination. The Trial Court said Friday that one employee was reassigned and a second received training and “is being closely monitored.”

“All staff are being trained in the areas of sexual harassment, stress management, and racial sensitivity,” the Trial Court administration said in a statement.

Investigators were told that files often went “missing” on purpose. One Latino employee described an incident with an upset customer whose case had to be rescheduled for a third time because of apparently misplaced paperwork. After the customer left, a white colleague produced the folder, saying, “You’re gonna kill me, but here’s the file,” the report says.

Some employees told investigators that their co-workers “are sabotaging the efforts of the register.” The interference would have been obvious to someone with “institutional knowledge,” an investigator wrote, but Arroyo had no experience in probate court before being elected.

Another court employee alleged that “it has become abundantly clear” that a cabal of longtime registry employees “believe they can collude . . . to have Register Arroyo and other registry employees of color removed from their positions.” The investigator disagreed with that conclusion and wrote that most of the longtime employees “feel unsure of their roles within the current day registry.”

Investigators also wrote that Arroyo failed to see a joke about Asians as offensive. One report described “management’s tentative stance regarding discipline and holding people accountable.”

Arroyo’s spokesman rejected the criticism in the report, saying the register had called for an independent inquiry into overt racism in the office because internal “investigations usually came back inconclusive.”

“The idea that Register Arroyo did not stand up for himself, his employees, and the users of the registry, all of whom, at one point or another, were subjected to racism, is absurd,” the spokesman said in an e-mail. “Register Arroyo has a well-documented history of being a champion for racial justice in a career that spans four decades.”

He said that Arroyo’s request for an independent investigation was rejected by the Trial Court, which oversees the office. However, the Trial Court administration said Arroyo had not requested an independent investigation.

The Trial Court’s own investigation unearthed stories of staffers using racial slurs for Latinos and African-Americans. There were allegations of sexual harassment by a male employee who described an obscene Facebook post to a female co-worker.

Investigators found that longtime employees were anxious about being replaced by a more diverse workforce. One Spanish-speaking employee described being told at the customer counter to “speak English” by a co-worker, according to the documents. In another case, an employee questioned whether litigants should be required to speak English and wondered if they had to help people who did not.

“The new hires particularly found the environment unwelcoming,” one report said. “Each of the new hires shared their feelings of disparate treatment and isolation, and long-term employees suggested favoritism . . . towards new employees ‘because they’re Spanish.’ ”

One memo recounted the story of a Hispanic employee who said she overheard co-workers complaining that Arroyo had brought on so many Hispanics. “These people are being hired to do our jobs!” said one of her white female co-workers, who then used an ethnic slur, according to the memo.

The white female co-worker later confronted the Hispanic employee to explain that their opinions weren’t directed at her personally but that they felt they were “being overshadowed” by the new hires, the memo says.

The Hispanic employee tried unsuccessfully to meet with Arroyo, then went to a manager, who warned her that there would be “no real remedy,” she recounted. The memo says she dropped the matter because she “didn’t want to feud with them.”