A Hamilton County judge being sued for discrimination denied firing one of his employees in 2014 for being openly gay and pointed Thursday to her confrontational behavior.
Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw said he never gave Elizabeth Gentzler, 38, a reason for firing her in 2014, explaining that he wanted to avoid "unnecessary confrontation" because he believed she would argue with him. On the stand Thursday in Gentzler's $500,000 civil discrimination trial against him, Hamilton County and another key member of Juvenile Court, Philyaw said her court "had risen to a level of complete inappropriateness."
Pressed for examples, Philyaw said he heard complaints of too much laughter in Gentzler's courtroom between hearings. Philyaw said the former magistrate also used profanity on one occasion but he couldn't recall who told him that. Philyaw said the behavior made him think Gentzler had been prematurely appointed to the position of magistrate in 2011. He transferred her to a different division of Juvenile Court in January 2014 and fired her that August on the phone without explanation.
Gentzler's attorney, James Stuart, said those claims didn't make any sense because Gentzler's work was respected in Juvenile Court. If there were actually issues, why didn't Philyaw say, "'Ms. Gentzler, don't do that?'" James asked.
"I did at the Tuesday morning meetings," Philyaw replied.
But Philyaw didn't personally say anything to Gentzler, James said. Those meetings were between Philyaw and his three magistrates who handle truancy, neglect and other junveile cases. They weren't one-on-one discussions.
Other witnesses disputed Philyaw's claim that her courtroom "had risen to a level of complete inappropriateness."
Jimmie Cannon, who worked in Gentzler's courtroom for a year and a half as a court officer, said Gentzler was a great magistrate who worked hard and paid attention. Philyaw was a good man, Cannon said, but he seemed to avoid interactions with Gentzler and "just acted like the gay was going to rub off." Cannon said other colleagues made negative remarks to him about Gentzler because she was gay.
According to court testimony, Gentzler introduced her colleagues to her wife, Jennifer, during her swearing-in ceremony in 2011. Gentzler previously testified she didn't experience any problems until Philyaw was appointed in 2013. Right away, he began inviting all of her colleagues to public events but not her, Gentzler said, making she and her wife wonder if the exclusion had to do with their sexuality.
Jennifer Gentzler said she tried to tell Philyaw how proud her wife was to work at Juvenile Court during an employee-wide event shortly after Philyaw's appointment in 2013. She said Philyaw crossed his arms, seemed distant, "wouldn't look at me [and] just gazed ahead."
Over time, this turned into homophobic jokes and hostile treatment that other magistrates didn't receive, Elizabeth Gentzler said.
According to her 2015 lawsuit and court testimony, Gentzler said she endured other off-color jokes from her colleagues about "Brokeback Mountain," a cowboy movie about two gay men. Another time, Sam Mairs, the Juvenile Court administrator, allegedly walked around the office in 2013 singing "Deck the Halls," and stopped in front of Gentzler's office to say, 'Don we now our gay apparel — right?'"
When Gentzler transferred to a different section of Juvenile Court, she had to drive back and forth between buildings to finish cases. Jennifer Gentzler said Mairs often gave her wife a hard time about how long the cases were taking. But when Elizabeth Gentzler's replacement was doing the same, "he never got talked to like that," Jennifer Gentzler said.
Philyaw denied that his employees made these jokes. He also denied not giving Gentzler a reason for her transfer to a different section of Juvenile Court in early 2014. He said it was to unify the different departments.
But James said that didn't make much sense. James pointed to a document in which Mairs said he and Philyaw discussed moving Gentzler because they'd lost all professional trust in her. If that was the case, why not fire her outright? James asked. He raised another question: Why did Philyaw write Gentzler a glowing letter of recommendation if he truly felt this way?
The trial isn't over yet.
U.S. District Court Judge Travis McDonough said it will continue in two weeks as he deals with another case. At that time, Philyaw's defense attorneys are expected to put on three days of proof. So far, they have argued that Philyaw can decide who to reappoint since magistrates work "at the pleasure of the judge" in Tennessee.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.