Woman fired by judge can't collect $1.2M from court

By Ed White
Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) - A woman who was awarded about $1.2 million after she was fired by a Dearborn judge still is struggling to get paid.

Julie Pucci is trying to collect from Dearborn's 19th District Court, the home of Judge Mark Somers, but the Michigan appeals court says the local court is off the hook because the verdict against the judge was in his "personal capacity," not in his public role.

Pucci claimed her rights were violated when her job as deputy administrator was eliminated in 2007 and she wasn't promoted. She had complained that Somers sent religious messages on court stationery and was proselytizing from the bench. A jury awarded her $734,000, and a judge added more than $400,000 for legal fees.

Just days before the trial, Somers signed an order making the Dearborn court responsible for any liability related to firing employees. That's why Pucci is trying to collect from the court, although 25 percent of Somers' pay now is going to her.

"While we agree that a chief judge can adopt an indemnification policy that covers the court's court employees and judges while acting in their official capacity, we do not believe that this power extends to indemnifying judges for liability incurred in their personal capacity," the appeals court said in a 3-0 decision released last Friday.

An attorney representing the Dearborn court said Somers exceeded his authority when he signed an order releasing him from liability before the trial.

"A judge cannot procure funding to insulate himself from personal liability for a $1.1 million judgment arising from misconduct in office any more than he could unilaterally require the court to pay him a $1.1 million salary," lawyer David O'Brien told the appeals court.

Pucci's attorney, Joel Sklar, said he would ask the Michigan Supreme Court to take the case. If the Dearborn court doesn't pay the verdict, Pucci would have to try to get all the money from Somers.

Somers, too, hopes the Supreme Court steps in. He said it's appropriate to have the public cover the bill because his decisions about staff were made in the course of business.

Somers has been a judge since 2003 and was re-elected in 2014, overcoming the publicized controversy over Pucci's dismissal and the trial.

"I'm not a little concerned. I'm a lot concerned," he told The Associated Press. "But I've developed a very thick skin. ... This is the world we live in. Even the good guys lose."

Published: Thu, Mar 24, 2016