Brooklyn Surrogate Court Judge Files Whistleblower Lawsuit Against State Court Administration 

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Kings County Surrogate Court Judge Harriet Thompson

Elected Brooklyn Surrogate Judge Harriet L. Thompson last Thursday, April 14 filed a lawsuit against the NYS Office of Court Administration (“OCA”) alleging the OCA suspended her from the bench out of whistleblower retaliation, racial and other discrimination.

The legal action challenges the suspension of Thompson on December 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, a decision that was upheld by Justice Wayne Saitta of the New York Supreme Court. 

Also named as respondents in the suit were Chief Administrative Judge the Hon. Lawrence K. Marks, and its Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Deborah Kaplan.  

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 petition was filed on Thursday, April 14, 2022 in State Supreme Court, Kings County.

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 and, ultimately, his resignation.

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

“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.  It’s absolutely illegal,” added Berman.

The Court of Claims lawsuit accuses the OCA of other 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. 

– Refusing to adequately provision Thompson’s Surrogate’s Court with court attorney and other staff from March 2019 to June 2021, despite at least five retirements from key positions in the court, and multiple transfers of OCA personnel to other courts, during a time when Judge Thompson’s docket had over 5000 cases

– Refusing to allow Thompson to hire a Principal Court Attorney to assist her – as the other judges have – in her chambers from February 2020 to December 17, 2021. 

– Treating Thompson very differently – and much worse – than her white counterparts

– Retaliating against Thompson because of her protected whistleblower activities and suspending her illegally

The filed actions seek to restore Judge Thompson to her position as Brooklyn Surrogate Judge immediately.

OCA spokesperson Lucian Chalfen said their response would be filed with the court.