Former Hamilton County magistrate testifies about alleged discrimination she experienced for being gay

Former Hamilton County magistrate testifies about alleged discrimination she experienced for being gay

March 21st, 2018 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

A former county magistrate who was fired in 2014 testified Tuesday that Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw didn't invite her to public events because he didn't want to be seen with an openly gay person.

Elizabeth Gentzler said she experienced a pattern of discrimination that started in 2013 when Philyaw invited two of her colleagues — but not her — to an annual prayer breakfast. It was one of many incidents Gentzler described on the witness stand Tuesday in her $500,000 civil discrimination trial against Philyaw and his administrator, Sam Mairs.

Elizabeth Gentzler, manager of the probation and parole unit for sex offenders with the Tennessee Department of Corrections, speaks to the Chattanooga City Council.

Elizabeth Gentzler, manager of the probation and parole...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw denies motions to dismiss charges against Ooltewah High School faculty in failing to report student abuse.

Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw denies...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County has denied many of her claims and hasn't had a chance to put on proof yet. In court documents, Juvenile Court officials admitted to making gender-related jokes and said Gentzler was in on the good-natured ribbing.

But Gentzler, 38, disputed that on the witness stand, saying she never complained about some of the homophobic jokes for a reason. "I felt like I needed to go along to keep my job," she said.

Gentzler, a practicing attorney in Juvenile Court who accepted an appointment as magistrate judge in 2011, said she never had any issues with her old boss, Judge Suzanne Bailey. All of that changed after Philyaw's appointment in 2013 when Bailey retired, she said.

Gentzler said she told Philyaw she was gay and had a long-term partner in a get-to-know-you memo she wrote in spring 2013. Shortly after that, Philyaw and her colleagues rode to public events together and left without telling her, Gentzler said.

Another time, Gentzler said, she heard Philyaw going through the office to invite everyone to a prison ministry program. Gentzler expected him to tell her, too, but he never did.

Philyaw also posted pictures on Facebook of him and other magistrates at a baseball game in "Vote for Philyaw" shirts. Gentzler said she only found out when her partner, now wife, was scrolling through the social media site.

All of this happened as Philyaw campaigned to keep the position, knowing he had to win re-election in 2014 in a Republican county. And Gentzler believed it was calculated and the main reason she was fired without explanation in 2014.

Philyaw was standoffish from the beginning, Gentzler testified Tuesday, refusing to sit down with her to discuss an idea for Juvenile Court. This was after Philyaw had solicited magistrates and other employees for suggestions, Gentzler said.

But Gentzler said she saw "the writing on the wall" when Philyaw walked into her office in December 2013 and said he was transferring her to Juvenile Court's child support division without explanation.

In court documents, one magistrate later said Gentzler's background working on child support cases made her a good candidate. Other documents suggested Mairs and Philyaw discussed the change without including Gentzler, her attorney, Stuart James, said.

Gentzler viewed the move as a demotion.

Because of the switch, she could no longer attend a state conference where she'd already booked a hotel room — and where Hamilton County would pay for her to get "continuing legal education." All lawyers and judges must do so in Tennessee.

As she transitioned to her new job, Gentzler had to travel between two courts to finish up some old cases. But she and Mairs continued to butt heads, Gentzler said. Mairs said she was disrupting the workflow for clerks, but Gentzler said that simply wasn't true.

Gentzler pointed to emails in which she notified clerks ahead of time about hearings — often scheduled on her days off. Gentzler said she never received any complaints and ran into a group of clerks at lunch once who were excited about some upcoming hearings they'd be working together.

Fed up with the jokes, the exclusion and the comments from Mairs, Gentzler said she wrote Philyaw a long, personal email about her concerns in June 2014. The next day, Philyaw sent a short reply asking her to meet with Mairs.

When Bailey was her boss, Gentzler said she reported directly to her — not Mairs, a longtime employee in Juvenile Court. But after a two-hour sitdown a few days later, Gentzler said she believed she'd cleared the air with Mairs.

Two weeks later, however, Philyaw called her on the phone and said he wasn't reappointing her. In Tennessee, magistrates work at the "pleasure of a judge," and Philyaw said he wasn't obligated to give her a reason, Gentzler said Tuesday.

Gentzler, who is now working as a probation and parole officer for the state, believes it had nothing to do with her performance.

"I knew I was doing a good job, and I put everything into that position," Gentzler said. "And to be treated the way I was? Yeah, it made me angry."

Her trial, which started Monday, continues today in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court at 9 a.m.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.


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