A former magistrate at Juvenile Court said she was fired because Judge Rob Philyaw and Court Administrator Sam Mairs "wanted me gone because I was openly gay."
County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said Elizabeth Gentzler was not the only gay at Juvenile Court and Hamilton County government, indicating that may be part of the county's defense. Attorney Stuart James, representing Ms. Gentzler, said he knows of two gay officials at Juvenile Court. However, the attorneys said if that evidence comes out they won't name names.
"That could be highly inflammatory," Attorney Taylor said.
Ms. Gentzler sued the county, Judge Philyaw and Mr. Mairs for $500,000. An eight-person jury - with five men and three women - is hearing the case in the courtroom of Federal Judge Travis McDonough.
The plaintiff said she had a good relationship with prior Judge Suzanne Bailey, saying she was very approachable and included her in office activities.
She said Judge Philyaw, after he got appointed by the County Commission in 2013, began shunning her and did not invite her to functions.
She stated, "He was very stand-offish from the get-go."
Ms. Gentzler said Judge Philyaw asked for input on improving the office, and she said she had an idea she had wanted to try. She said the new judge never would listen to her, though she sent emails and went by his office. She said his secretary would always say he was too busy to see her.
She said Judge Philyaw invited others in the office to a Prayer Breakfast just before he was sworn into office, but she was not included.
She said she and her long-time partner (now wife) Jen showed up at the office to go with the staff to a reception for the Tennessee Supreme Court members. She said under Judge Bailey that all the staff would go in a county car or a van to such meetings. She said the group gathered, then she and Jen "looked around and they were all gone." She said she and Jen went in her car to the reception.
Ms. Gentzler said Judge Philyaw invited other staff members, but not her, to Christmas at the Courthouse in 2013 on the day he and Juvenile Court Clerk Gary Behler were recognized.
Another time she said other staff members and magistrates came in about 45 minutes after her. She said she found out that Judge Philyaw had taken the group to lunch while excluding her.
She said she saw a photo on Facebook of the office group at a ball game with the judge while wearing Elect Philyaw T-shirts. She said, "He did not want to be seen in public with an openly gay person."
There was a Prison Prevention Ministry meeting and she was the only one not invited.
She told the jury that Mr. Mairs made comments about gays, including going around singing Deck the Halls and peeking in her office when he got to the part about "Don me now my gay apparel" and asking "Right?"
She said another time he joked about two other men "going camping together." She said it was a reference to the movie Brokeback Mountain, which has some gay characters who camped together.
Ms. Gentzler said she had "seen a lot of gay bashing" and had learned "what to look for to stay safe. You get to know the places to go and the places not to go." She said, "I've been called a lot of names."
She told of going to restaurants with Jen and being stared at.
Ms. Gentzler said under Judge Bailey she was one of three magistrates at the main court building on Third Street. She said those had more prestige than the three magistrates at the child support division on Main Street. For one thing, she said, the magistrates at Third Street got to go on county-paid conferences.
She said while he was campaigning for election to his own eight-year term as judge in 2014 that Judge Philyaw came into her office and told her he was moving her to child support and bringing Magistrate Chris Gott from child support to her spot.
She said she still regrets that she did not ask him why.
Ms. Gentzler said she told him that would place three white males at the main court along with him. She said he told her, "I don't care. I feel like I've got the election wrapped up."
She said she also told the judge that she was in the middle of three large cases and would like to finish them. She said he suggested that she come back for those hearings.
However, she said when she took her scheduled Friday afternoons once a month off to hear the matters back at the main court that she got hostile treatment from both Judge Philyaw and Mr. Mairs. She said they both asked her "what are you doing here and how long are you going to keep coming back?"
Ms. Gentzler said when she came back for the cases she found that her pass key to a gated parking lot no longer worked. She said she was forced to park in the public area - near some of the families that had come before her and she had ruled against.
Ms. Gentzler said she spoke with county human resources about her job discrimination complaint and was quickly referred to Ken Jordan, county Equal Employment Opportunity officer. She said he advised that she meet with Mr. Mairs. She said she did and it appeared that things might be worked out.
However, after the election won by Judge Philyaw, she said he called her and told her she would not be re-appointed. This time she said she asked for a reason. She said he stated, "I don't have to give you a reason."
Breaking into tears, the plaintiff said, "I was devastated. This had been my dream job. I was doing a good job and I was making a difference in lives."
She said she had put in four and a half years with the county and needed just six more months to be vested in the retirement system. She said she asked Judge Philyaw if she could take a position with the court for just six months. She said he told her he would talk to Mr. Mairs about it, but he never got back to her.
She said she did not have confidence in county EOC officer Jordan so she filed a complaint with federal EEOC and was issued a letter that she had the right to sue.