Lake County judge-clerk feud reaches Ohio Supreme Court

PAINESVILLE, Ohio (KFVS) — The Ohio Supreme Court has heard a unique disagreement between Lake County’s clerk of courts and five Common Pleas justices concerning the clerk’s treatment of her staff.

To justify restricting Andrews from her office for all but one day a month, the judges highlighted an extraordinary departure of personnel following complaints that Clerk of Courts Faith Andrews verbally abused employees and made discriminatory comments.

Andrews, who was elected to the clerk position in November 2020, said she would follow the order in a March email to the judges. Andrews, on the other hand, filed a complaint in the state’s high court last month, requesting that the judges’ order be overturned and that she be allowed to return to her job.

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Administrative Judge Eugene Lucci, Presiding Judge John P. O’Donnell, and judges Patrick Condon, Vincent Culotta, and Colleen Falkowski are among those named in the lawsuit. The other judges including Andrews are Republicans, whereas Falkowski is a Democrat.

Andrews’ lawsuit claims that the accusations are “false and defamatory,” and that the judges have wrongfully taken away her capacity to accomplish the job that voters elected her to do. According to the justices, Ohio law states that a county’s clerk of courts is under the direction of the common pleas court, and Andrews must therefore obey their directions.

Andrews, a political rookie, defeated Democrat Maureen Kelly, the former Clerk of Courts, after campaigning to modernize the clerk’s office and save expenditures. She also mentioned her admiration for Donald Trump, the previous president.

However, the judges privately claim that Andrews has handled the office in such a chaotic and obsessive manner that longstanding employees are discouraged and in mental and physical distress. According to the judges, Andrews’ actions have put the county at risk of being sued by former employees.

Because Lake County Prosecutor Charles Coulson, who is officially the civil counsel for county officials, recused himself from the case, the county’s board of commissioners voted last month to pay for private attorneys to represent Andrews and the judges.

Edmund Searby of Porter Wright and Kevin Kelley, the former Cleveland City Council president and current candidate for Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court judge, is representing Andrews. To represent Andrews, the commissioners will pay Searby $450 per hour and Kelley $400.

The judges are represented by Kimberly Vanover Riley and Linda Woeber of Montgomery Janson, who was recruited by the court’s insurance carrier. Andrews, Lucci, and Coulson have all been contacted by Plain Dealer for comment.

The Beginning

According to Andrews’ lawsuit, the conflict began last year when she delayed a previously agreed-upon payment of more than $260,000 from her office’s budget for judicial software. Before leaving office, Andrews’ predecessor agreed to the arrangement.

Andrews believed she was acting ethically and reasonably when she questioned the project’s financing source. Lucci wrote Andrews a letter signed by the judges in October, stating that the court was concerned about the manner her office was handling the project and that she was not correctly categorizing court documents that were electronically filed using new software.

The next month, Lucci sent a proposed journal entry outlining her concerns and instructing her office to divide the expense of two IT professionals who would report to the judges and assist with the software implementation. Andrews had “acted in behavior unbecoming to her office,” according to the first planned journal entry, which included the swearing-in in plain view.

In an email, Lucci stated that if Andrews followed the requirements, the judges would not file the journal entry, preventing it from becoming a public record.”We cannot afford to lose good staff and be vulnerable to claims, complaints, litigation, and a loss of public confidence in an institution that our judges have spent over 70 years establishing,” Lucci wrote.

Continued Disagreements

The disagreement raged on until March when Lucci wrote Andrews a letter claiming that the judges had “investigated a variety of charges” against her and determined that the scope of her responsibilities needed to be altered.

Unnamed employees accused Andrews of running the office in a chaotic and paranoid manner, according to an 11-page journal entry attached to the letter. Andrews freely discussed “taking [workers] outback and shooting [them],” according to the diary post.

Andrews told her team that she maintained a separate “mulligan file” on each employee from their personnel files. The injunction stated that it includes examples of improper behavior and that she threatens to disclose the material if the employees cross her.

She has also directed that members of her staff record all of their interactions with the court’s employees and submit the audio to her. Andrews also wants copies of any direct emails sent to the justices of the court. According to the order, Andrews also storms around the office, giving obscenity-laced rants that were heard by members of the public on at least one occasion.

According to the journal entry, Andrews also employed a male with no prior clerking experience at a greater wage than numerous women who had worked in the office for years. Andrews stated that she paid him extra because “he is a man” after two deputy clerks highlighted the matter with her, according to the entry.

According to the journal post, Andrews then awarded the women a raise. Andrews also mentioned that it was time for elder deputy clerks to retire, according to the directive. Several employees stated they were getting sick in the morning on their way to work from the stress of working under Andrews, according to a current deputy clerk who is not mentioned in the journal post.

According to the entry, “everyone is always walking about on eggshells or waiting for the other outbursts and praying they don’t get caught in the crosshairs.”The judges stated that Andrews’ actions have caused seven of the roughly 50 deputy clerks to resign since she assumed office and that they have a “bona fide fear” that the remaining staff may stage a mass walkout unless Andrews’ behavior is handled.

“The judges have found that the clerk of courts of Lake County, Ohio, is unable to discharge the duties of that office, notably in personnel management, and is participating in conduct that threatens and is destructive to the court’s operation and mission,” the journal entry stated.”The clerk is interfering with the court’s constitutional role, and judges are obliged and have the inherent obligation and ability to defend the court’s existence and operation.”

The judges sought to impose a slew of restrictions on Andrews, which she claims make it impossible for her to perform the duties for which she was elected. Except on the first business day of each month, the courts ordered her to work remotely. A sheriff’s deputy will be stationed nearby while she is in her office. Security cameras were also ordered to be installed outside her office door by the judges.

Andrews’ right to hire and fire personnel in her office was also taken away by the judges. The judges signed but did not file the journal entry. In emails, Lucci informed Andrews that the judges would not file the entry as long as Andrews followed the rules. If Andrews violated the court order after it was filed, the judges might hold her in contempt of court. This might result in a fine and up to 30 days in jail.

The judges noted that one option to remedy Andrews’ behavior would be to hold a recall election, which would require more than 14,000 Lake County voters to sign a petition to get the subject on the ballot, a lengthy process. The journal note stated, “Such a removal action would require more time than what the current situation allows.”

The Legal Action

According to Andrews’ lawsuit, the judges “engaged in a gross abuse of discretion and acted in callous disregard for Ohio law, including Ohio constitutional requirements” by depriving her of her job. The suit also accused the judges of avoiding the recall process, which would have been the right means to carry out what the jurists declared was required in their order.

The judges also violated Andrews’ right to due process by failing to hold a formal or informal hearing to allow her to react to the claims and defend herself and her ability to administer her office, according to the lawsuit.

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