Butler County judge wants $1.1 million verdict tossed or retried

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Butler County Common Pleas Court Judge Greg Stephens has asked a federal judge to either erase the $1.1 million judgement a jury awarded to former magistrate Kimberly Edelstein or grant a retrial.

Stephens’ attorney Linda Woeber filed a motion Friday asking U.S. District Court Judge Michael R. Barrett to rule that the evidence did not support the $1.1 million verdict or grant a new trial. Failing those she is asking the judgement be reduced because she said punitive damages weren’t warranted and the back-pay amount was erroneous.

It has been nearly six years since Edelstein sued Stephens in federal court over allegedly firing her for being Jewish and ruining her career. The jury awarded $835,000 in back pay, $250,000 in compensatory damages and $35,000 in punitive damages.

“Reasonable minds could reach but one conclusion based on the evidence presented at trial: Judge Stephens’ termination of Ms. Edelstein had nothing to do with her request for time off, or the fact that she was Jewish (as evidenced by the fact the jury found for Judge Stephens on the Equal Protection and state law discrimination claim),” Woeber wrote.

“Because her entire recovery rests on the jury’s First Amendment retaliation finding, Edelstein should take nothing against Judge Stephens. Even if the jury’s First Amendment retaliation finding is sustained, the back pay award should be reduced in accordance with the evidence, and the punitive damages award must be set aside as no evidence was presented at trial that would support a finding of malice.”

Edelstein filed a notice of appeal on Monday, claiming among other things the county should still be on hook — and presumably financially responsible — in the lawsuit.

“Plaintiff further appeals an Order (DOC 171) dismissing Defendant Butler County from the case as they had to remain in for vicarious liability purposes,” Edelstein wrote in her notice of appeal.

Edelstein filed the $1 million lawsuit against Stephens, the county, Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser and Chief Assistant Prosecutor Dan Ferguson in 2017, claiming Stephens fired her for wanting to take off eight Jewish high holy days and saying the men bad-mouthed her, destroying her career.

She also claimed the county’s policy of allowing Christians to have Christmas off without taking a vacation day is discriminatory. The federal court dismissed the county, Gmoser and Ferguson from the case in 2020.

Edelstein worked for Stephens after Judge Patricia Oney retired in early 2016. Edelstein told Stephens on July 28, 2016, she would need to take eight days off in October to observe Jewish high holy days.

She said Stephens reacted to her request by yelling, “Holy cow, eight days,” and he appeared to be angry, according to court filings. She was fired four days later.

Woeber is quibbling over the $835,000 award for back pay because Edelstein got another job with Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson. She eventually lost that job also.

“Plaintiff’s accrual of lost wages, in the form of back pay, should have been tolled as of the date of her employment at Wood County, as she lost that opportunity due to her own egregious misconduct,” Woeber wrote. “The jury’s back pay award included five years after Edelstein’s Wood County resignation and put her in a much better position than she would have been if she had not been terminated by Judge Stephens.”

Woeber listed a host of issues with the trial from improper jury instructions to evidence presented by Edelstein, largely because she was representing herself.

“Edelstein made improper and prejudicial arguments based on speculation that was not supported by any record evidence, and asked questions of witnesses she reasonably should have known the answers to which would not have been admissible,” Woeber wrote. “Additionally, Edelstein presented irrelevant character evidence and improper lay witness opinion testimony.”

The big question is whether Stephens — if his latest motions fail — will ultimately have to pay the judgement or county taxpayers. Woeber also filed a motion to stay the execution of the judgement which appears to suggest the judge is liable for payment.

“Stay is appropriate to prevent irreparable harm and injury to Judge Stephens,” she wrote. “Given that he believes there is a very real possibility that the judgment in favor of plaintiff may be reversed or modified by the court.”

Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser said since Edelstein raised the vicarious liability issue — which means an employer could be held responsible for an employee’s actions — that will be up to the courts to decide.

“Because she has appealed it as an issue, because she claims it was raised somehow at the trial level, whether it was or whether it wasn’t, she has made it an issue that will have to be resolved and the court will have to do that one way or the other,” Gmoser said.

Edelstein couldn’t be reached for comment.

The Journal-News obtained the legal bills for the six-year battle in federal court and they total $243,728 through 2022. Butler County taxpayers paid the $100,000 deductible and the commissioners’ insurance company, the County Risk Sharing Authority is responsible for the rest. Woeber’s law firm bills quarterly so fees for the trial aren’t included.

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