Accused of 'overly harsh' management style, federal judge agrees to counseling

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A federal judge has acknowledged an “overly harsh” management style and agreed to take remedial training after a law clerk complained about abusive and harassing conduct, according to a Dec. 15 order released this week. (Image from Shutterstock)

A federal judge has acknowledged an “overly harsh” management style and agreed to take remedial training after a law clerk complained about abusive and harassing conduct, according to a Dec. 15 order released this week.

The judge’s name was not released in the Dec. 15 order by Chief Judge Debra Ann Livingston of the judicial council of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New York. The order dismissed the clerk’s complaint because the judge agreed to take corrective action and because other actions by the judge did not amount to misconduct.

The judicial council of the 2nd Circuit denied the clerk’s petition for review in a March 25 order.

According to Reuters, the case is “a rare instance” of the federal judiciary publicly addressing misconduct claims under new polices adopted in 2019. Law360 also has coverage.

The law clerk at first sought assisted resolution under an employment dispute resolution plan. The clerk transferred to a different judge and then filed an October 2022 complaint about the first judge’s staff treatment and added additional allegations.

The investigation that followed revealed that other law clerks “agreed that the judge’s management style could be overly harsh,” although they said they learned a lot from the judge.

The order said the judge “shared on several occasions how deeply troubled and saddened the judge was at hearing the concerns expressed by the complainant and others and wanted it to be clear that the judge is committed to creating a better workplace environment for chambers staff.”

The order also noted that clerks’ experiences “have generally improved” since the complaints were brought to the judge’s attention.

The judge will participate in counseling about workplace conduct, watch workplace videos and webinars, and inform law clerks about complaint procedures. The judge has also agreed that the circuit director of workplace relations can check in with law clerks at about the midpoint of their terms through August 2025 or longer than that if additional concerns arise.

The complaining law clerk had also complained that the judge had:

  • Accepted gifts from staff members. One was a framed newspaper cutting from the 1970s featuring the judge’s favorite band, a gift from an outgoing law clerk. The other was a jar of grape jam from a staff member vacationing in New Hampshire. The “de minimis” gifts “fall well within” an exception to the ban on accepting gifts, the Dec. 15 order said.

  • Communicated by text with an attorney. The texts consisted of the attorney congratulating the judge on an accomplishment and “a perfunctory back-and-forth of a few exchanges related to that accomplishment.” The attorney had a pending criminal case, but it was not before the judge. The texts do not raise concerns about ex parte communications, the Dec. 15 order said. “Given many judges’ long practice histories within their districts and circuits, these types of relationships and communications about personal matters are not uncommon, and without more, do not give rise to any ethical concerns.”

  • Conducted research on the assets of a defendant who failed to appear for a status conference. The judge, in coordination with the court’s pretrial and probation department, looked at public property records to determine whether the defendant’s bail should be secured. The judge’s actions were not improper, according to the Dec. 15 order.

The unnamed judge is within the 2nd Circuit. The news follows an Original Jurisdiction post about complaints by clerks working for U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon of the Southern District of Florida, who is overseeing the classified documents case against former President Donald Trump. The Southern District of Florida is within the 11th Circuit at Atlanta.

Clerks working for Cannon reported positive experiences—until she was assigned the documents case in August 2022. The blog described 80-hour workweeks, exacerbated by a delay in a security clearance for one of the clerks; a style of micromanagement; a clerk who quit in October 2023 because she wanted to spend more time with her baby; and a second clerk who quit, apparently in December 2023.

Original Jurisdiction noted a law professor’s assessment of the situation—he said law clerks never quit. A current law clerk for a different judge told Original Jurisdiction that it is not true.

“Clerks do quit,” the anonymous clerk said. “I bet if you were to ask law professors what percentage of clerks quit a clerkship, they’d say less than 1%. I would put the actual number at 5% or more based on my peers, forums, word of mouth, etc.”

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