Brooklyn Surrogate Court Judge sues NYS Office of Court Administration for alleged whistleblower retaliation

Judge Harriet L. Thompson.  Judge Harriet Thompson
Judge Harriet L. Thompson.
Judge Harriet Thompson

Judge Harriet L. Thompson, an elected Brooklyn Surrogate Court Judge in Kings County (Brooklyn), has filed a special proceeding pursuant to Article 78, in the Supreme Court of Kings County against the NYS Office of Court Administration (“OCA”), its Chief Administrative Judge, Hon. Lawrence K. Marks and its Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Hon. Deborah Kaplan for alleged whistleblower retaliation, among other claims.

The legal action challenges the suspension of Judge Thompson on Dec. 17, 2021 after she barred former Surrogate’s Court Public Administrator, Richard A. Buckheit from administering estates on her docket after calling him out for “unlawful and unethical conduct.”

Judge Thompson said the decision was upheld by Justice Wayne Saitta of the New York Supreme Court.

The judge’s new action asserts that OCA and its administrators “do not have the legal power to suspend Judge Thompson under the New York State Constitution, the Public Officers Law and the Judiciary Law.”

The latest filing comes on the heels of another action recently filed by Judge Thompson in the New York Court of Claims, which alleges additional wrongdoing by the OCA and its present and former Administrative Judges, including race discrimination, retaliation, and violation of Judge Thompson’s constitutional rights as a result of her whistleblower activity, which led to the Judge’s public feud with Buckheit. He submitted his written resignation on Feb. 4, 2022, Judge Thompson said.

Judge Thompson, who is African American and served for nine years as a Brooklyn Civil Court and Acting Supreme Court Judge, was elected to the Surrogate’s Court in 2018 and began serving in that capacity on Jan. 1, 2019.

The suit claims that “Judge Thompson was subjected to a retaliatory suspension as a result of protected activity (she) engaged in after (she) reported questionable and likely unlawful conduct by the Public Administrator (PA) responsible for administrating the estates of such decedents.

“Accordingly, in the discharge of (her) duties, (she) barred the PA from administering the estates of decedents assigned to (her) docket,” the suit states. “The PA brought an article 78 proceeding challenging (her) actions, and the matter was decided in (her) favor. However, as the result of (her) engaging in the protected activities described above, (she) was targeted for retaliation by the PA and his supporters.”

“What should be happening is an investigation of the clearly corrupt activities of the OCA, not the suspension of Judge Thompson, a jurist whose record as a judge is impeccable, who was trying to root out corruption in the court, and who is highly regarded in the legal community,” said Matthew L. Berman, Judge Thompson’s attorney from the law firm Valli Kane & Vagnini LLP.

“Furthermore, as an elected public official, Judge Thompson is subject to the Public Officers Law and Judicial Law and literally no one in the OCA has the authority to remove or suspend her from office,” he added. “It’s absolutely illegal.”

The Court of Claims lawsuit accuses the OCA of other alleged abuses, stemming both from Judge Thompson’s “attempt to clean up the Court and from her status as an African American Christian woman.”

Some of these include: “Depriving Judge Thompson of the opportunity to fill two Principal Court Attorney positions in violation of her constitutional rights; (and) refusing to provide adequate staff and required equipment for Judge Thompson to efficiently and effectively operate the Surrogate’s Court from March 2019 to December 2021, despite the fact that there were at least five retirements from key positions in the court, and multiple transfers of OCA personnel to other courts, at a time when Judge Thompson’s docket had over 5000 cases, a majority of which she inherited from the prior administration.”

The charges also comprise: “Refusing to allow judge Thompson to hire a Principal Court Attorney to assist her – like other sitting judges – in her chambers from February 2020 to Dec. 17, 2021; treating Judge Thompson dreadfully different – and much worse – than her white judicial colleagues; (and) retaliating against Judge Thompson because of her protected whistleblower activities and suspending her illegally.”

“I know that Judge Harriet Thompson is an outstanding jurist, with a completely unblemished record. She deserves her day in court,” said Lu-Shawn M. Thompson (no relation to Judge Thompson), widow of former Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson.

The article 78 proceeding seeks to restore Judge Thompson to her position as Brooklyn Surrogate Judge immediately. The Court of Claims action seeks various forms of relief.