Hamilton County attorneys grill former magistrate who says she was fired for being gay

Hamilton County attorneys grill former magistrate who says she was fired for being gay

March 22nd, 2018 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

Hamilton County attorneys pushed back Wednesday on a former Juvenile Court magistrate's claim that she was fired in 2014 for being gay, saying she never vocalized that concern with colleagues.

"Why didn't you put that card on the table — the issue of you being gay and them penalizing you?" Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor asked Elizabeth Gentzler. Wednesday marked Taylor's first opportunity to question Gentlzer since her $500,000 civil discrimination trial started this week in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court.

Gentzler, 38, who served as a magistrate from 2011 to 2014, said Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw and his administrator, Sam Mairs, created a hostile work environment by singling her out, excluding her from events, demoting her and later firing her without explanation.

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.

But Taylor chipped away at those claims Wednesday, asking Gentlzer how she knew she was being discriminated against and telling jurors that magistrates work at "the pleasure of the judge" in Tennessee. There was never any guarantee Judge Philyaw would keep her on board, Taylor said.

"You do know today that he did not have to give you a reason [for not re-appointing you]," Taylor said.

On the witness stand, Gentzler said she experienced a pattern of discrimination between 2013 and 2014 as Philyaw campaigned for re-election. Gentzler said Philyaw often invited her colleagues to public events — but never her — because he didn't want to be seen with an openly gay person. Eight days after he won the election, Philyaw fired Gentzler in August 2014, she said.

As for Mairs, he made homophobic jokes, was hostile with Gentzler in ways that he wasn't with other magistrates and consulted with Philyaw about moving her to a different division of Juvenile Court in a different building, she said. Things came to a head in the summer of 2014 when Gentzler wrote a long email to Philyaw saying she had a theory about why she wasn't welcome at her old building, but that it was an "ugly, ugly thought."

Philyaw responded the next day and told her to meet with Mairs, who recorded that two-hour conversation without Gentzler's knowledge. Tennessee law allows one party to record another without consent.

Never during that meeting did Gentzler spell out what her "ugly, ugly thought" was, Taylor said. If anything, Taylor said, she and Mairs were able to resolve some of their differences and Mairs apologized for any misunderstandings.

Gentzler's attorney, Stuart James, said there was a little bit more to the story, though. Before her meeting with Mairs, Gentzler went to the county's Human Resources Department and a local Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) agent to discuss her concerns about discrimination, James said.

Gentzler referenced her EEO concerns later during her meeting with Mairs, but he said "let's not discuss that right now," James said.

"He [Mairs] was aware of your feeling that you were discriminated against?" James asked.

"Yes, sir," Gentzler replied.

"And that issue was left wide open?" James asked.

"Yes, sir," Gentzler replied.

Philyaw didn't follow up to see how the meeting went, Gentzler said. A few weeks later, he called Gentzler and another magistrate who'd been on the bench 15 years and told them he wouldn't be reappointing them.

According to her testimony, Gentzler was the only openly gay person in Juvenile Court. She wrote she had a partner in a get-to-know-you memo to Philyaw after his appointment to Juvenile Court in 2013. Before that, her coworkers had known she was openly gay because her wife, Jennifer Gentzler, occasionally stopped by the courthouse with baked goods.

"It's a little better [being gay in Chattanooga]," Jennifer Gentzler said Wednesday on the stand, "but we get stared at. When we're out together, people know what's going on. Sometimes you worry at night. Is somebody going to key our car or hit us or hurt us or call us names? The not knowing how people feel and not knowing what could happen is the worst part."

The trial continues today before U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough at 9 a.m.

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