Former Oakland County court official files whistleblower complaint, alleges abuse by judge

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Troy — A former District Court administrator has filed a federal lawsuit against the court's chief judge claiming she was retaliated against and fired after her complaints prompted a Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission probe into how another judge allegedly mistreated court staff and the public.

Dana O’Neal alleges 52nd District Court Chief Judge Joseph Fabrizio dismissed her as court administrator in December without explanation after she began keeping track of alleged mistreatment of herself and others by Troy District Judge Kirsten Nielsen Hartig. O’Neal alleged Hartig created a hostile work environment. She claims a violation of Michigan's Whistleblower Protection Act and First Amendment retaliation.

Neither Hartig or Fabrizio responded to requests for comment from The Detroit News on Friday. Hartig is not a defendant in the lawsuit.

O’Neal had worked for several county offices since 1992, according to the complaint, and in April 2018 was hired as the administrator for the Troy court. O’Neal said in May 2018 after a medical leave for “stress-related” conditions, she returned to work and was put on notice by Hartig she had to report to the judge daily “unless you’re unconscious.”

Her lawsuit alleges several former court administrators “had abandoned the position due to mistreatment by Hartig.”

In August of 2018 Hartig “hailed (O'Neal) into an open court where she accused her of mismanaging grant funding,” and O'Neal said she was humiliated before a courtroom full of people, according to the lawsuit.

O’Neal reported the incident to Fabrizio, who is chief judge of four district courts, and the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO), which supervises local courts across Michigan for the Michigan Supreme Court, the lawsuit claims. 

O'Neal's report included a transcript and video recording of the incident, according to the lawsuit.

“Fabrizio admonished Judge Hartig for her behavior and SCAO advised (O’Neal) to keep documenting such action,” according to the complaint.

For the next two years Hartig “continued to interfere with the discipline and morale” in the court and by March 2020, the lawsuit alleges O’Neal again pleaded in emails to Fabrizio “for support and said she could no longer tolerate this treatment and provided detailed examples of Judge Hartig’s behavior.”

Fabrizio referred her to human resources which, according to the lawsuit, conducted an investigation, interviewed O’Neal for three hours and concluded a “hostile work environment existed.”

Human resources instructed Fabrizio to forward the findings and final report to the Judicial Tenure Commission and SCAO, according to the complaint, and the commission in July 2020 began an investigation that Hartig was aware of. The Judicial Tenure Commission investigates allegations of misconduct by judges. Fabrizio also ordered Hartig to cease all communications with O’Neal except email and video conference with a third party present, the suit says.

Lynn Helland, executive director of the Judicial Tenure Commission, said under court rules he is not permitted to comment on any matters involving a judge if the information is not already part of a public record. The agency only makes public notice of an investigation if there is a finding of misconduct or disciplinary action is taken.

A SCAO spokesperson declined to comment Friday.

According to the lawsuit, in November 2020, the JTC interviewed current and former court employees, law enforcement and local attorneys, and 40 to 60 people were interviewed regarding incidents beyond O’Neal’s personal complaint.

In September of last year, O’Neal alleges she was called to a meeting with Fabrizio in which he questioned why “vacant staff positions were going unfilled and new hires were deciding last-minute they no longer wanted the job,” according to the complaint, which claims O’Neal was asked if anyone was telling potential candidates “how bad it was” working for the Troy court.

On Dec. 10 O’Neal was “abruptly terminated” while the JTC investigation remained open, the lawsuit claims, and “cooperation with the SCAO and involvement in the JTC investigation was a substantial or motivating factor” in the decision to fire her.

She was escorted off the property without her belongings, which were later placed inside a cardboard box outside the courthouse for her to pick up, according to the lawsuit. She found her “private notes regarding Hartig’s behavior and the investigation were missing,” according to the suit.

“She was surprised by this (termination),” said O’Neal’s attorney, Noah Hurwitz. “She serves at the judge’s pleasure, but in a situation where someone is going to lose their job, they normally provide an opportunity to hear what the problem is and how they might be able to address it.

“That wasn’t the case here, she was just escorted out of the building,” he said. “It’s impossible to overlook the timing, especially with her complaint and an ongoing investigation involving problems inside the court.”

Under the state's Whistleblower Protection Act, employees are protected when they request a public body to participate in an investigation, hearing or inquiry.

The federal lawsuit, filed Thursday, has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts. It seeks compensatory economic damages for wages and benefits O’Neal has lost on the job since December, punitive damages if warranted, and attorney fees.

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