Former Juvenile Court magistrate files $500,000 discrimination suit against county

Former Juvenile Court magistrate files $500,000 discrimination suit against county

November 17th, 2015 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

A former magistrate judge has filed a $500,000 lawsuit against Hamilton County and key members of Juvenile Court, claiming two high-ranking coworkers discriminated against her because she is gay.

The lawsuit alleges that, on a number of occasions, Judge Rob Philyaw and administrator Sam Mairs created a hostile work environment for Elizabeth Gentzler by making homophobic jokes, avoiding her ideas and suggestions, and transferring her to a different assignment without explanation, all of which ended in her September 2014 termination.

Reached Monday, Mairs said he was not authorized to comment. Philyaw could not be reached for comment. County officials offered no statement but denied the allegations.

No trial date has been set, said Stuart James, one of Gentzler's attorneys. The defense is waiting on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to wrap up its investigation and release a report, James said. The lawsuit, originally filed in Hamilton County to preserve its state claims, since has been moved to federal court, he added.

From August 2011 onward, Gentzler reported to Judge Suzanne Bailey, who retired April 30, 2013. Gentzler said her problems began around the time Philyaw took her place in spring 2013.

After the Hamilton County Commission appointed Philyaw in April, he asked each magistrate to type up something about themselves, to get to know them better, the lawsuit says.

Gentzler, who is openly gay and has a partner, included that information in the letter to Philyaw.

Later that month, before he was sworn in as judge, Philyaw invited all the magistrates to a Leadership Prayer Breakfast at the Chattanooga Convention Center — all the magistrates except Gentzler, the lawsuit alleges.

Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw speaks during a transfer hearing.

Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw speaks during a...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Then, in early June 2013, Philyaw told magistrates he wanted to meet them one-on-one. And he did, except with Gentzler, according to the lawsuit.

In October, Gentzler tried to share an idea with Philyaw, who pushed back their meeting. After trying to meet with him multiple times, Gentzler sent an email saying, "hopefully they could connect next week."

"Judge Philyaw never emailed her back, and he never spoke another word of it," the lawsuit says.

During a meeting in November 2013, Philyaw chastised Gentzler about some of her cases in front of everyone, the lawsuit states. He never berated other employees publicly, the suit states.

Around the same time, Mairs made a joke in reference to "Brokeback Mountain," a cowboy movie about two gay men, in front of Gentzler and other coworkers. Weeks later, as the holiday season approached, Mairs walked around the administration singing "Deck the Halls." As he passed Gentzler's office, he said the line, "Don we now our gay apparel," the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, after increasingly ignoring her throughout the fall, Philyaw told Gentzler on Dec. 30, 2013, he was transferring her to Child Support Court. He offered no explanation, the lawsuit says. As a result, Gentzler needed to start commuting between two offices to finish up the cases she was presiding over.

On June 20, 2014, days before she was officially done in Juvenile Court, Gentzler returned for a worker's retirement party — only to find her gate code to the parking lot didn't work, the lawsuit states.

When she raised the issue with Philyaw, he told her to talk to Mairs, the lawsuit states. When she spoke to Mairs, he told Gentzler the gate holds a finite number of codes. Five days later, Gentzler and Mairs got into a heated discussion about how much longer she would be returning to Juvenile Court. "This has gone on long enough," Mairs told her, according to the lawsuit.

Gentzler's lawsuit maintains she tried to smooth out the issues, but each attempt ended with Philyaw defending Mairs. Things came to head Aug. 15, 2014, when Philyaw called Gentzler and told her he would not reappoint her to a magistrate position.

She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December 2014, the lawsuit states.

Contact Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423- 757-6347. Follow @zackpeterson918.


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