A former Hamilton County magistrate was demoted, treated differently and fired without explanation because she's openly gay and her boss didn't believe that would reflect well on Republican constituents as he ran for re-election in Hamilton County Juvenile Court in 2014, the woman's attorney said on the first day of her discrimination trial in Chattanooga.
Elizabeth Gentzler, 38, started working for Juvenile Court in 2010, was promoted to a magistrate in 2011, and never received any negative writeups from her boss, then Juvenile Court Judge Suzanne Bailey, her attorney, Stuart James, said Monday.
Co-workers knew she was gay and in a committed relationship with her partner of 10 years, Gentzler said on the witness stand Monday. But things changed when Bailey retired in 2013 and the Hamilton County Commission appointed attorney Rob Philyaw as Juvenile Court judge.
Gentzler said Philyaw and his administrator, Sam Mairs, created a hostile work environment for her by making homophobic jokes, avoiding her ideas and suggestions and transferring her to a different assignment without good explanation, all of which ended in her September 2014 termination. It's why she filed suit in 2015 against both men, asking for $500,000 in damages. The county has denied many of her claims in court filings.
"I always start off [each trial] with a couple of words, and because of the incidences in this case, those words are 'Me, too,'" James told jurors, referencing the ongoing viral movement that's highlighed the prevalence of harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. "It's about discrimination and harassment."
In his opening statement, James said he wanted to give jurors a snapshot of the case: Gentzler was respected and received favorable reviews in the annual Chattanooga Bar Association poll that allows attorneys to anonymously rate a judge's performance. Gentzler didn't have complaints in her personnel file. But her superiors later said they were concerned she had "robe fever or haughtiness" after she filed a complaint against Philyaw, James said.
All of this occured while Philyaw was gearing up to run for re-election in 2014 in a Republican county, James said, which explained why he didn't bring a gay woman and her partner to political events. Until the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in 2015, gay people could not legally marry in Tennessee.
County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said magistrates and other court employees work "at the pleasure of the judge" in Tennessee. He asked jurors to consider all of the evidence they're going to see and ask themselves if Gentzler was fired solely for being a woman and being gay.
Taylor hasn't been able to put on proof yet. James and Gentzler get to call witnesses first since they brought the case. Attorneys picked jurors Monday, gave their opening statements and Gentzler briefly testified before U.S. District Court Judge Travis McDonough sent everyone home around 2:30 p.m.
Gentzler, who will continue testifying today at 9 a.m., began by detailing her rise within Juvenile Court. She started by prosecuting child support cases for the state, segued into defense work and became a supervisor for Juvenile Court before Bailey offered her a magistrate position in 2011. Juvenile Court handles child support, truancy and works to rehabilitate minors who are caught doing criminal acts.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.