Attorneys for a Butler County judge are fighting to overturn a $1.1 million verdict that a jury awarded to a former magistrate who claims she was fired for being Jewish and requesting time off to celebrate high holy days.
A jury sided with Kimberly Edelstein and against her former boss, Court of Common Pleas Judge Greg Stephens, after a two-week trial that ended on Feb. 3.
Now defense attorneys are asking U.S. District Court Judge Michael Barrett to overturn the verdict, order a new trial, reduce the judgment and delay payment to Edelstein.
Stephen’s attorney Linda Woeber declined to comment. In court filings, she said that paying the $1.1 million verdict would cause “irreparable harm and injury to Judge Stephens,” because “there is a very real possibility” the verdict may be reversed.
Historically, federal judges are reluctant to overturn jury verdicts.
Jurors found that Edelstein’s First Amendment right of free exercise of religion was violated, awarding her $835,000 in back pay, $250,000 in compensatory damages and $35,000 in punitive damages, which is considered punishment for malicious conduct or reckless disregard of her rights.
“It’s been going on for a very long time,” said Edelstein, who was fired in 2016. “So, for me, I would like to see an end … I want my life back where I can actually focus on other things. When I think of the time that’s been spent on this.”
Edelstein worked as a magistrate for Stephens after Judge Patricia Oney retired in early 2016. When Edelstein told Stephens in July 2016 that she would need to take eight days off in October to observe Jewish high holy days, she said he reacted her request by yelling, “Holy cow, eight days,” and fired her days later.
“I was told, ‘You don’t fit in,’” Edelstein said in court. “I didn’t not fit in because of some personality issue. I didn’t fit in because I was a fundamentalist Jew among three fundamentalist Christians.”
In her closing statement, Edelstein described Stephens as an “extreme Christian” and former pastor, and that two other members of his staff mocked her and made fun of her religion.
Edelstein, who is a lawyer, represented herself in court. Since she won, she is asking for reimbursement for $961 in gas and rooming expenses and $180 for parking during the trial. Woeber is fighting that expense and doesn’t want to pay Edelstein more than $40 per day to reimburse her expert witnesses.
Meanwhile, the legal bills to defend Stephens, which total $304,315 through January, are likely to rise substantially with the post-trial motions.
Butler County taxpayers paid the $100,000 insurance deductible, and the County Risk Sharing Authority is responsible for the rest, said County Administrator Judi Boyko, who declined to comment on the verdict.
Boyko said she did not know if the amount of these legal bills would increase the county’s insurance premium going forward.
“All can do is pray about it and pray that justice prevails, and that the wisdom exists in our court system and … this verdict is upheld,” Edelstein said. “I have no intention of quitting ever because it’s not just about me, for me, it’s also who comes behind me.”
Edelstein has a new job and is living out of state. But she said getting fired caused financial issues for her husband and three children.
“I was the primary breadwinner in my family and so the loss of the job was quite a hit to the family income,” Edelstein said. “Thankfully my husband was working so we were able to get by … we sold a lot of personal items and reduced the assets we had, so that we could manage and that’s what we did.”