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Porn-DVD incident spawns litigation revealing alleged Baltimore District Court gender hostilities

Photo: baltimorecitycjcc.org, License: N/A

baltimorecitycjcc.org

Former Baltimore city district court administrative clerk Lonnie P. Ferguson


More than three years ago, Kim Sumner discovered her boss, then-administrative clerk Lonnie P. Ferguson of the Baltimore City District Court, had given her a passel of pornographic DVDs. The long-simmering aftermath of the incident, including an ongoing civil rights lawsuit brought by Sumner against the Maryland judiciary, has brought to light a tender issue: that, as Baltimore City District Court Judge Devy Patterson Russell claimed in an affidavit filed in Sumner’s case in September, there is “gender based discrimination, harassment and/or hostile work environment occurring in the District Court for Baltimore City.”

Russell’s affidavit disclosed that in June 2012 she filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, which probes allegations of improper conduct by judges, against Baltimore City District Court Judge John Hargrove Jr., who then was the court’s administrative judge. The affidavit does not summarize the substance of Russell’s complaint but states that she has been “identified as a material witness” in Sumner’s case, and that “if I am subpoenaed to testify,” then “I will attest to the facts contained in my complaint against Judge Hargrove, as well as other matters not mentioned in the complaint supporting the past and ongoing gender based discrimination and hostile work environment” in the court.

Two months after Russell’s affidavit was filed in Sumner’s case, Hargrove left his position as the court’s administrative judge to become chair of the Judiciary Task Force on Pretrial Confinement and Release, which is exploring how the state can comply with a recent court ruling that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to have a lawyer represent them at their first appearance before a court commissioner. District Court Judge Barbara Baer Waxman assumed the role of administrative judge when Hargrove, who continues to hear cases, stepped down.

A call to Ferguson’s office, meanwhile, was met with the news that he no longer works there, and that the new administrative clerk is Mary Abrams, who used to hold that position in Prince George’s County District Court.

Sumner remains a human-resources associate at the court and continues to plug ahead with her lawsuit, which contends that the penalty meted out in 2011 for Ferguson’s porn-DVD conduct—30 days unpaid leave—was insufficient and that the Maryland judiciary is “failing to protect its women” from civil rights violations.

In the lawsuit, Sumner calls Ferguson “a man in power with powerful friends” who has a “well known and documented record of being vulgar around women and being a sexual preditor [sic] of the women who work under him.” She filed the lawsuit in February 2013, claiming that “I consider myself in an isolated hostile environment.” More recently, in August, according to court documents, Sumner was made uncomfortable by Ferguson’s nearby presence as she left the courthouse. “I find this man vile and abhorrent,” Sumner wrote, adding that “he makes my skin crawl.”

The DVDs apparently were lost during an internal investigation of the incident, but Sumner describes them as “hardcore degradation of women: two black men with a white woman, or two white men with a black woman, hands on their throats choking them while they engage in sexual activity.”

Since 2011, “I have looked for legal representation,” Sumner continued, and “it is my belief that because of where I work, who I work for, who this complaint is against, and the very nature of this complaint, that I cannot even get a lawyer to help me.”

Sumner proceeded to prosecute the lawsuit on her own, fighting against a motion to dismiss filed by assistant attorneys general H. Scott Curtis and Michele McDonald, representing the Maryland judiciary. A spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General, Alan Brody, says “we don’t comment” on cases that are, like Sumner’s, “still pending.”

In August, the case was reassigned from Maryland U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake to another federal judge—Joseph R. Goodwin, who sits on the bench in West Virginia’s Southern District courthouse in Charleston. No reason was given for transferring the case to a judge from another state, but Russell’s presence as a material witness may have had something to do with it: Her husband is Maryland U.S. District Judge George Levi Russell.

Within weeks of taking over the case, Goodwin denied the state’s dismissal motion, handing Sumner a David-and-Goliath win by allowing her to proceed.

Sumner, Goodwin wrote, “has pleaded facts sufficient to show that the offending conduct was unwanted and based on her sex” and that it was “sufficiently severe and pervasive to create an abusive work environment.” Moreover, Goodwin continued, Sumner’s allegations are “sufficient to impute the behavior to her employer,” the Maryland judiciary, because she asserts that Ferguson’s conduct “has been condoned and has continued for many years, while the Maryland Judiciary either looked the other way, or when complaints were filed, applied minimal punitive actions.”

Shortly after Goodwin’s ruling, Sumner got an attorney: Gerardine Delambo, a solo practitioner in Baltimore. Asked why she took the case, Delambo says, “being a former Maryland state employee, I have great empathy for employees who have disputes with their superiors.”

Goodwin has set an ample schedule for the case to be litigated: Trial currently is set for next January in Baltimore.

Delambo, meanwhile, says she will be filing an amended complaint soon, explaining that it’s a “massive undertaking and a work in progress” and that “more individual defendants” will be added. If Sumner’s allegations are true—that Ferguson “has had sexual relationships with multiple women at the same work location at the same time” and “has transferred out those women that he is through with or women that fight him and try to report him”—there may yet be more plaintiffs coming forward too. And given Russell’s affidavit, gender-based hostilities are still thought to be ongoing—though the recent shuffling of staff may have helped soften them.

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