Clerks without a cause

The dissolution of the Port Chester Justice Court left some staff jobless without notice

By John Donegan

This story originally appeared in the 6/3/21 edition of the Westmore News. For the original article, follow the link.

Chikkia Bennett has been an assistant court clerk for 10 years, half of which she spent with the Village of Port Chester Justice Court. When the court dissolved on May 14, it did not come as a surprise to her and her peers. Bennett and Patricia Lebron, another assistant clerk, had heard from local papers and their union representatives in July 2020 that the Village Board of Trustees was considering dissolving its tribunal and relinquishing all its judiciary responsibilities to the Town of Rye.

“If it wasn’t for Westmore News, we would have never known that we were losing our jobs,” Lebron said. “It was like fate was thrown at us and we just had to accept it.”

Afterwards, they confronted Port Chester Human Resources Specialist Ed Brancati and their clerk supervisor at the time, Regina Hill, but they said their concerns were dismissed. Both told them nothing was confirmed until the board made the dissolution official. When the board passed the measure in October, Brancati said he would follow up with them.

“When they signed it, we thought the Village was going to come back to us or the union was going to come back to us and speak to us as people, but no one ever did,” Lebron said.

A study concluded by the Center for Governmental Research estimated Port Chester’s court raked in $2.7 million in revenue while costing $1.5 million to operate. Upon dissolving, the Town of Rye would absorb the expenses while the Village would keep most of the revenue.

Port Chester officially voted in October 2020 to dissolve its court effective May 15, a Saturday. Mandated by state law, The Town of Rye was forced to absorb the caseload of the Village, which had the busiest justice court in the state, by May 14. Towns are required to have courts while villages are not; Rye Brook has used Rye Town Court as their primary justice system since the municipality was established 38 years ago. The Town also absorbed the Village’s tax burden used to pay the court’s operating costs.

The problem was that court staff never heard directly from the Village about Port Chester’s decision to dissolve the court and how it might affect their careers. While packing up some of their things on May 6, Bennett and Lebron were handed a pink slip by Brancati. It stated their positions were to be terminated effective May 14.

“Even when (the slip) was handed to us, I was left unclear about how this whole process was handled,” Bennett said. “We were not included. We were treated like furniture.”

The packet explained her medical insurance was to stay in effect until Sept. 30 and also offered some guidance on ensuing unemployment.

“At that time, it finally hit me,” Lebron said. “I’m really losing my job.”

While Bennett used her sick leave on her last week at the court, Lebron kept going to work.

“I think, deep down, I stayed on hoping (to be) transferred, but I never did,” Lebron said.

Lebron stated that as their final day approached, she became more and more ill. She called in sick on May 10 and 11, but went back on Wednesday, May 12. She arrived to find most of her equipment had been taken from her desk. Even her phone charger had been confiscated.

“What am I supposed to do here with no printer, no label maker—I had nothing,” Lebron said. “They even took the water cooler. They even went through my desk and took my phone charger; I felt violated that they would come in and do that and think that was OK.”

On May 12, with eight hours left at her desk, Lebron said Rye Town Head Court Clerk Anne Capeci approached her with a stack of cases, asking her to have them done by the next week. “She told me that if I got a chance, I could do it on the 13th—the day that they were taking my computer,” she said. “I was polite about it, but I was also insulted. You would come to me when I have eight hours left on the computer and ask me to do your work for the Town of Rye—how dare the Town do that to me.”

Then the union became involved

Lebron began calling their union, Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), as early as Feb. 24, and on five occasions between Apr. 6 and 20, asking when they would receive an official notice of their layoff.

“There’s not a hard and fast (answer) on how they would be notified,” said CSEA Labor Specialist Alyssa Cagle. “(Though) it’s certainly the responsibility of the Village of Port Chester to notify the employees if they’re going to be laid off.”

The CSEA does not normally send out notifications to employees when they’re scheduled for layoffs. Cagle said she was under the impression the Village had sent the court employees notice. So, when she received an email in late-January confirming that the clerks were losing their jobs, she took it as a formality and didn’t share it with them until May 11.

“I didn’t lose the email, I (just) didn’t remember, you know?” Cagle said. “I received the email in January. Our unit officers were saying, ‘we never got that in writing,’ and I, at the time, did not remember that the HR director had followed up and sent me something in writing.”

Before she rediscovered the email in late-April, Cagle then set the clerks up with attorneys who through two Zoom calls on Apr. 19 and 22 advised they file a grievance, the basis for a future lawsuit, after discovering the Village had not provided a written notice of their layoff within 45 days, as required in their contract.

Port Chester Acting Village Manager Stuart Rabin said he thought written notice of their termination was hand delivered to them directly but didn’t know when the notices were sent out. “The Village did what it was required to do,” he said.

But the clerks said that was not the case.

The clerks asked Cagle to mirror their case based on a similar situation faced by eight paid Port Chester firefighters who won a settlement after the Village eliminated their positions from the budget in 2016 and transitioned to a total volunteer department. The firefighters, citing their termination was based on anti-union animus, or retaliation against union employees, filed suit and later settled for $200,000.

“We have no grounds to file a suit of the nature that the ladies wanted us to file,” Cagle explained. “The ladies were not engaged in protected activity; they’re not being laid off because of retaliation for any lawsuit of any sort that they filed. What they were asking was not something I could provide for them.”

For the court employees, the Village also enforced the contractual cap on the sick time available for payout. While Bennett and the other clerks weren’t affected too much by this, Lebron had stacked up a significant amount of unused sick days in the 19 years she had been there. She could not say how much time she lost.

“I was the dedicated employee that never called in sick,” Lebron said. “Back then, all of us were committed to come in a sniffle here and there and push through the workday.”

While Cagle said the union argued for the Village to give Lebron her leave, citing COVID and a struggling job market for sympathy, they refused.

Who was supposed to send the written notice?

Lebron said she never received a written notice. The only notice she did find, in fact, confused her further. On Apr. 15, Brancati posted in the courtroom the transfer 72B law, which apparently had on it the names of all the remaining clerks and court officers—excluding Hill—and stated the court was being transferred over to the Town of Rye. Administrators provided no explanation for the notice. The bill also stated that the staff was expected to know their rights throughout this process.

According to Cagle, courts consider email to be a form of written notice, which invalidates any cause for grievance. She was not sure why the Village sent the notice to her and not directly to the clerks.

“I was of the understanding that they had given notice to the clerks,” she said. “Usually, when I’m told by a municipality that they’ve notified their staff, I don’t usually get into ‘how did you do it.’”

That said, it is the union’s responsibility to help its members stay in the loop throughout the process. She felt the union otherwise did its duties in keeping the clerks updated on the timeline and said they were well aware of the court’s dissolution.

“I have done all that I could on behalf of the court employees, and you have all had an opportunity to consult with our legal counsel,” Cagle wrote in a May 11 email to the clerks, a response to their distress over the short-term notice, stating then-CSEA President Chris Summa was notified in writing and admitted she did not recall whether she had been as well. “I later remembered a conversation I had with Ed Brancati, which was accompanied by an email on January 21, 2021, to notify me that the Village Court was going to close, and the effective date for that closure.”

“The ladies obviously feel there was a communication breakdown there somewhere; I’m not really sure where that happened or what they were expecting that didn’t come about. They were, I think, expecting something in writing,” she added. “Which, from what I understand, is something they never got. But they were aware of what was going on.”

She kept in touch with Brancati and unit officers who assured her that communication was maintained between the clerks and the Village. “Pat knew what was going on and I guess I assumed everybody else in the department knew what was going on as well. And I assumed, because they’re professionals, that the Village HR department there was sharing their information.”

Brancati declined a request for comment.

Cagle said HR told her the clerks had been properly informed last October when the Village first voted to dissolve the court. “How the Village went about doing that I don’t know,” she said.

According to Acting Village Manager Rabin, it was the duty of Chief Court Clerk Hill and HR to give the clerks proper notice. It was also Cagle’s impression that it was Hill’s job to notify the clerks.

Hill was supposed to have given the clerks the written notice that they were being laid off. But Lebron and Bennett said she never gave them anything. In fact, they said she all but stopped speaking to them in December 2020.

“I was being told one thing by (Brancati) and then the ladies were telling me later that I guess he wasn’t dealing with that stuff directly—he was giving it to the court clerk at the time and they’re telling me that the court clerk was not conveying information to them,” Cagle said. “But I found that out much later down the road.”

“My understanding is that the Village was feeding information to Regina on the layoffs and the timelines, and my understanding is they expected her to share this information with the staff and the staff was telling me she never did that,” she added. “Or she was waiting until, I think it was months after she received it, to finally distribute it to everybody when it was finally time for things to happen.”

But Bennett and Lebron said Hill never gave them notice. In fact, after accepting and then rejecting one of the new Rye Town Court positions, she left for a job in Georgia. Hill’s last day was Apr. 12.

“(Hill) just up and left,” Bennett said. “She didn’t finish her work; she didn’t even say goodbye.”

One of the busiest ships at sea, with no captain

The Village didn’t see a reason to prioritize filling Hill’s spot, so they left the staff without a supervisor for the remainder of the time. The assistant clerks said during this time they felt abandoned, like they could have skipped out on work and nobody would have known.

“We were alone, no one from the Village checked in on us—nothing,” Bennett said. “They wouldn’t have even known if we were in the building or not. No one called, no one checked in on us.”

Rabin said that after Hill left, court operations were brought to a halt on Apr. 14, outside of regular administrative cleanup.

“There may have been some arraignments or other things the judges may have put on the calendar, but there was no public service available in the court after that date,” he said.

During this time there were numerous occasions, the clerks said, when they had to complete tasks that weren’t necessarily their job to do. They completed the daily deposits, making sure bail money they generally received in cash was brought to the bank.

For example, after a traffic court date on Apr. 30, they had roughly $30,000 in cash and no supervisor to guide them. And that’s only one deposit of the four or five that they would receive on a single court date.

“No one from the village came to check on us or ask any questions,” Bennett said. “We had to reach out and ask, ‘what do we do with this money?’”

“I made it my business to make sure the money got deposited into the bank and (was) not just laying around,” she added. “We didn’t have to do it—we could’ve just left the money there.”

When Rye Town canceled court for parking violations on May 7, they mailed out notices with the Port Chester Court phone number attached. The clerks had no idea, going into work that day blindsided. Lebron estimated the town sent out over 1,000 letters.

“We had to answer all those phone calls,” Lebron said. “Rye Town sent out the paperwork, but we didn’t know anything about it. We were working for them without getting paid by them. I felt bad telling these people that I had no knowledge of the paperwork and the letters that were sent out.”

The clerks felt weird having to schedule court dates for the town that would outlive their position.

“We were overwhelmed,” Lebron said. “But we dealt with it.”

On Apr. 15, the Village offered Georgina La Mazza, one of the assistant clerks, Hill’s vacant supervisor position. She rejected it. Bennett remembers the day of the meeting La Mazza supposedly had with Rabin. She said La Mazza left the meeting flustered and crying. “Apparently, he was putting his finger in her face, demanding and directing her that she has to take on Regina’s job responsibilities.”

Rabin said he was not present for the conversation with La Mazza. “There was an opportunity for them to serve in Regina’s stead (while) in the same position the same way they had already been working. Our contract allows for assistant court clerks to step into that department head role; she did not want to do that and that was it— she didn’t want to do it and nobody else expressed an interest.”

Rabin clarified that La Mazza was canvassed solely at the recommendation of Village Justice José Castaneda, who transferred to Rye Town Court from Port Chester. “There was no requirement for Regina’s role to be filled at that time,” he said. “It was something that the judge had done.”

While their contract states they were qualified to take on the responsibilities, it’s only recognized in “an emergency for the purpose of replacing another employee.”

“Regina had already quit by then,” Bennett said. She and Lebron were never offered the position. They would have likely rejected it, as it didn’t come with a pay increase, but they said they still would have appreciated the offer.

This was nothing like what happened in Ossining

With the expansion, Rye Town posted three new court clerk positions. Bennett and Lebron both applied, competing with 26 other candidates for the jobs. From there, 12 candidates were interviewed; Lebron was not one of them. Bennett was interviewed but wasn’t ultimately selected. She believes her skin color played a role.

“The only thing that I can believe is our race played a part in it, “Bennett said. “I also believe that those clerks that were brought from elsewhere were political favors—friends of the judges or Anne Capeci. They already had jobs and were making decent money.”

The Town and Village of Ossining had a similar situation in 2012 when they merged their two judiciaries under the Town of Ossining Court. But when the Village began planning its court dissolution, it negotiated for guaranteed transfers on behalf of their staff, citing it was paramount that they support them. The Village also maintained open lines of communication with the Town and its employees, something Rye Town Supervisor Gary Zuckerman believes Port Chester failed to do and has caused much of this confusion.

“Unlike the Town of Ossining and the Village of Ossining who went through the same process five or six years ago—where there was a negotiation between the Town and the Village, and legislation was passed by the state legislature enabling a real merger—none of that happened in this particular case,” Zuckerman said.

While Ossining supported its staff, the Port Chester clerks said the only one in the Village they knew advocated for their hire was Justice Matt Troy.

“He was the only one that spoke on our behalf; not even our supervisor at the time spoke on our behalf nor did our union board,” Bennett said.

Zuckerman oversaw the absorption of the Village judiciary. He said there weren’t any negotiations between the Town of Rye and Port Chester. Former Mayor Richard Falanka said there were negotiations but that it was ultimately up to Zuckerman and the Town of Rye Court to decide who was hired.

“The only discussions that were had were that I requested that the decision of the Port Chester Board of Trustees to dissolve the court be delayed for the next year so that we could have time to study the issue and determine the best course,” Zuckerman said. “There were no discussions as to which employees, if any, might be transferred.”

Zuckerman has carefully critiqued the Village’s methods in its dissolution from the start. Always careful with his words, he noted his perception that Port Chester was rushing the process and provided little communication on how the transition would go.

In July 2020, Zuckerman stated at a Rye Town Council meeting that he wanted a court with “fresh staff.”

“The Town would be able to start fresh with all new personnel,” he said at the July meeting. “I know that many of the Village Court personnel make salaries in excess of our current court clerk, and it is my feeling that under no circumstances will any staff personnel exceed the current salary of town clerk.”

“Why is that?” Lebron questioned. “Port Chester Court is all minority. And Rye Town Court, as it stands now, is mostly White. Is it because it was an all-minority court that they didn’t want to start off as a minority court? Because I guess the people in Rye Brook—they have certain standards? I don’t know what it is, but I feel left out.”

The supervisor has since walked back on the statement and said he was open to their transfer, but quickly noted that it was not his decision. “We had nothing to do with them losing their jobs,” Zuckerman said. “That was a decision made by the Village of Port Chester. That decision was made without consultation with the Town of Rye at all.”

Ultimately, the Rye Town Court hired La Mazza for one of the assistant clerk positions, at the recommendation of Judge Castaneda.

Who is to blame for all of this?

The Rye Town Court is currently undertaking the largest non-city caseload in the state. Lebron and Bennett are skeptical about whether the Town is as ready as they claim to be.

“Right now, I’m assuming the Town of Rye is overwhelmed,” Lebron said. “They’re not used to all that business, but we’re used to it. And everybody they got in the Town of Rye is also not used to it.”

Lebron feels that there is no individual party to blame for how they were treated. She acknowledges that she and the other clerks knew the court was dissolving. But that wasn’t the issue. For her, it was the lack of a consistent voice telling them exactly what was going on. “I need to move forward, but I need to know why Rye Town chose to skip over my application,” she said.

Whether or not the union did a good job representing the clerks, Cagle couldn’t really say. She attributed some of the confusion to COVID-19, which kept meetings virtual.

“Could the union have done a better job?” she asked. “Sure, I’m sure we could have. You could say that about every process every time you do it.”

Both Lebron and Bennett moved to Port Chester years ago for work. The court was their world. They’re not really sure where to go next. For now, they are navigating unemployment for the first time in their life.

“It hurts,” Bennett said. “I can’t even sleep at night—I don’t sleep at night. I’ve never been unemployed—not since I was 14 years old.”

“No plans right now, no job right now,” she said, tearing up. “My main priority right now, before I can move forward, is getting answers to this.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s