Insubordination and lack of candor

Adopting the findings and recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, the New Jersey Supreme Court suspended a judge for 2 months for surreptitiously recording 3 meetings with her assignment judge and denying what she was doing when she got caught.  In the Matter of Gross-Quatrone, Order (New Jersey Supreme Court January 24, 2019).  The Court does not describe the judge’s conduct; this summary is based on the Committee’s presentment.

The judge’s law clerk for the 2015/2016 term began on August 4, 2015.  That clerkship “ended abruptly” on Friday December 10 after the law clerk complained to the county human resources supervisor and the trial court administrator about the judge’s abusive treatment.  The following Monday, County Assignment Judge Bonnie Mizdol met with Judge Gross-Quatrone to discuss the removal of her law clerk and related issues.  Judge Gross-Quatrone acknowledged that she had told the law clerk she considered the clerk’s performance to be deficient, but denied any abusive treatment.

Judge Gross-Quatrone attempted to record this meeting with Judge Mizdol surreptitiously on her cellular telephone although she claims that attempt failed and that there is no recording.

On the morning of December 21, Judge Mizdol scheduled a management meeting in her chambers to discuss providing Judge Gross-Quatrone with administrative support.  She invited Judge Gross-Quatrone, Trial Court Administrator Laura Simoldoni, the family division presiding judge, and the division manager.  Judge Mizdol denied Judge Gross-Quatrone’s request to have her secretary attend the meeting as “her witness,” but agreed to meet privately before the meeting.

During her private meeting with Judge Mizdol, Judge Gross-Quatrone repeated her request to have a “witness” at the meeting or, alternatively, that the meeting take place in a courtroom where it could be recorded; Judge Mizdol denied both requests.  Without Judge Mizdol’s knowledge, the judge recorded this meeting on an Olympus digital voice recorder hidden in her purse.

Judge Gross-Quatrone also recorded the management meeting that followed without the knowledge of the other participants.  The other participants became aware of the judge’s secretive recording when Simoldoni noticed a red light “beaming” from the top of the judge’s purse.  Simoldoni reached into the purse, retrieved the judge’s digital recorder, and pressed the “stop” button.  Simoldoni asked the judge if she was recording the meeting, and the judge replied:  “No!  It was a gift from my parents.  I’m not taping the meeting.  I don’t know how this thing works.”  The judge reiterated her denial when questioned by Judge Mizdol.  In response, Simoldoni replayed a portion of the recording that revealed that the judge had, in fact, recorded the meeting.

Judge Gross-Quatrone demanded the return of her digital recorder, but Simoldoni declined to return the recorder before speaking with counsel to the Acting Administrative Director of the Courts.  The meeting ended shortly thereafter.

Judge Gross-Quatrone requested and was permitted a private meeting with Judge Mizdol.  Judge Mizdol, after confirming that the judge was not also recording that meeting, advised the judge that her conduct was “irretrievable” and constituted a “significant breach of trust.”  The judge maintained that she had done nothing wrong and reiterated her request for the return of her recorder.

Over the next several hours, the judge telephoned Judge Mizdol at least twice and the acting administrative director once seeking the return of her recorder.   In response, Judge Mizdol advised the judge that she would advise the judge of the status of her recorder at that time after hearing from the counsel’s office that afternoon

Judge Gross-Quatrone telephoned Simoldoni and threatened to call the police if she did not return the recorder.  The sheriff’s office received a telephone call from Judge Gross-Quatrone’s courtroom asking about the telephone number for emergencies.  In response, Sergeant Gabriel Soto conducted a ”security check” of the judge’s courtroom and chambers area.  The judge reported to Sergeant Soto that Simoldoni had taken her “personal property” without her permission and had refused to return it.  Sheriff’s Lieutenant James Hague, at Sergeant Soto’s request, went to the judge’s chambers.  The judge recounted for Lieutenant Hague the events leading up to Simoldoni’s retrieval of her recorder, which the judge characterized as a “theft,” and said she wanted to file a report with the police department.

Simoldoni, with the requisite administrative approvals, made a copy of the contents of the judge’s recording and released the recorder to the sheriff’s department that afternoon.  A sheriff’s officer returned it to the judge that same day.

Judge Gross-Quatrone was transferred following these incidents.

There were 3 files on the judge’s recorder:  a recording of the judge saying “testing, testing, one, two, three, testing, testing;” a second that was blank; and the recording of the judge’s private meeting with Judge Mizdol and subsequent management meeting.  The Committed noted that the judge’s evident testing of the recorder contradicted her claim that she did not know how the recorder worked.

The judge argued that she was justified in surreptitiously recording the 3 meetings because she needed “to protect herself from recurring ‘workplace hostilities, belittling in the presence of staff, and verbal abuse’” by Judge Mizdol.  The Committee found that the judge’s defenses did not justify or mitigate her intentional misconduct.  It explained:

While Respondent may have perceived herself to be the subject of hostile treatment, she had available to her several options to address that situation short of engaging in deceptive and insubordinate conduct.  Respondent could have communicated her concerns directly to the Acting Administrative Director of the Courts or the Assistant Director of Human Resources at the Administrative Office of the Courts.  Respondent’s decision to forego these legitimate avenues to address workplace concerns does not constitute a viable defense in this proceeding.

The Committee noted that the judge’s recording and subsequent denials “occurred in full view of subordinate court personnel,” thus undermining Judge Mizdol’s authority.  It explained:

Such insubordination is intolerable in an institution such as the judiciary where the operational fortitude of the organization depends appreciably on its members’ compliance with the mandates of the administrative hierarchy.  Absent such compliance by its most senior members, i.e. jurists, the judiciary risks similar noncompliance from subordinate court personnel and, for that matter, court users who are required to abide by court orders or face potential sanctions.

The Committee concluded that the judge’s defiance of her superior and lack of candor “suggest a disturbing lack of sound judgment and professional integrity that, if left unaddressed, threaten the dignity of the judicial office and the public’s confidence in the judiciary as an institution worthy of deference.”

The Committee also stated that the judge’s misconduct had been aggravated by her multiple calls about the return of her recorder, her threats to have the police intervene, and her “spurious incident report” to the sheriff’s office, which “exacerbated an already tense situation and unnecessarily exposed additional courthouse staff to this incident.”  Also in aggravation, the Committee noted the judge’s attempts to mislead it during its investigation by feigning ignorance about having recorded the first meeting.  In mitigation, the Committee noted that the judge had performed satisfactorily on the bench after her transfer.

The judge argued that her surreptitious recordings were “legal” in New Jersey and she could not be disciplined for legal conduct.  The Committee stated, however, that, regardless of her legal rights, the judge’s “documented insubordination in her interactions with her Assignment Judge and lack of credibility both to her Assignment Judge and this Committee constitute a sharp deviation from the integrity demanded of all jurists under Canons 1 and 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct and is deserving of public discipline.”

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