Note to judges: You might want to recuse yourself if your wife’s brother becomes relevant in a case.
Note to school construction project managers: You might want to refrain from having an affair with a school contractor.
Note to everyone else: Read on.
In a rare ruling last week, the Nebraska Supreme Court rebuked an Omaha judge and in the process revealed a tawdry ordeal that involved a Millard Public Schools employee, her contractor lover, her Facebook artwork and her eventual replacement as project manager, who just happened to be the judge’s brother-in-law.
The state’s high court unanimously overturned a judge’s dismissal of the Omaha woman’s lawsuit claiming that she was unfairly forced out of her job as a project manager after Millard school officials learned that she was having an affair with an electrician whose company was working on school projects.
The high court has ordered that the case be stripped from Douglas County District Judge Peter Bataillon and reassigned to another judge as the lawsuit is reinstated.
Start with the strange case.
According to the high court ruling, Judge Bataillon’s rulings and court documents:
Kim M. Thompson worked for the Millard Public Schools from July 5, 2005, through July 14, 2014 — the last three years as a project manager overseeing construction projects for the district.
From September 2011 until October 2012, Thompson, who was single, was involved in an affair with the owner of a local electrical business — a married man who had various construction contracts with the Millard Public Schools. The World-Herald is not naming the electrician because he is not a party to the lawsuit.
Thompson and the electrician broke up in October 2012, when Thompson went to the electrician’s house to tell his wife about the affair. The electrician threatened to call Thompson’s supervisor to have her fired. The electrician later reconsidered and told Thompson’s supervisor, Ed Rockwell, that he didn’t want her fired but that he “could not work with her anymore,” according to the judge.
The Millard Public Schools opened an investigation that “revealed, among other things, that Thompson used her business phone” in the course of the affair, the judge wrote. On Oct. 31, 2012, Thompson was suspended without pay for two weeks and lost her district cellphone for six months. She was told to “keep her personal life separate from her work responsibilities,” Bataillon wrote.
In May 2013, Thompson and the electrician “renewed their affair,” the judge wrote. They broke up again in November 2013. On Nov. 14, 2013, the electrician showed up at Thompson’s office at the Millard Public Schools and yelled at her from the parking lot to come out and talk to him, while “people were coming into work for a meeting.” The electrician threatened to go inside and cause a scene to get her fired.
That, apparently, was the last breakup, although the fallout continued.
On Feb. 14, 2014, Thompson posted to Facebook a painting depicting her fractured relationship with the electrician. “This was a picture of a woman tied up with a black angel standing with his back to her,” Bataillon wrote. The black angel symbolized the electrician.
“The painting represented the emotional and mental abuse plaintiff said she suffered during their relationship,” the judge wrote.
The following Monday, the electrician told Thompson to remove the painting from Facebook. That began an argument by text that lasted several days until the two met in a Target parking lot. As they sat in her car, the electrician threatened to have her fired and then bolted from the car.
On Feb. 28, 2014, the electrician showed up unannounced at Thompson’s house over the lunch hour, again threatening her job. Thompson, in turn, was late for a work meeting. She told her supervisor what was happening and that she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety because of the electrician’s alleged threats to get her fired.
Thompson’s supervisors advised her about the family medical leave act, reprimanded her for her continued relationship with the electrician and advised her to take down the Facebook post of her painting. Thompson initially declined, saying the painting was “done as part of her therapy to move past anxiety and depression,” the judge wrote. She eventually relented and took it down.
But she then started a blog for “therapeutic reasons” and started writing about how she and the electrician and their children were “going to be one big happy family.”
On July 2, 2014, the electrician’s wife emailed a complaint to Jim Sutfin, the Millard Public Schools superintendent. Sutfin referred the matter to Thompson’s supervisors, who again instructed her to cease contact with the electrician and his wife.
The next day, Thompson sent a message to the electrician’s wife, “contrary to the directive given,” Bataillon wrote.
On July 14, 2014, Millard Public Schools officials gave Thompson the option of resigning or getting fired. She resigned, she said, because of the pressure they placed on her.
A year later, she filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, that she was forced to resign without cause. She also noted that the district paid a male project manager $7,000 more than it paid her and began grooming him, instead of Thompson, for a promotion.
That man? Bataillon’s brother-in-law, Stephen Mainelli.
In its Friday ruling, the high court said that Bataillon should have stepped aside the moment that Thompson raised the issue of the pay given to his brother-in-law. Under judicial canons, a judge must avoid any appearance of impropriety and typically should recuse if a witness resides within four degrees of familial separation.
Bataillon had ruled that his brother-in-law would not testify and had no claim before the court, and therefore his presence would have no effect on the judge’s ability to fairly decide Thompson’s claims.
The Nebraska Supreme Court disagreed. The high court noted that Bataillon “extensively described Mainelli’s 38 years of construction industry experience” in an order, emphasizing his “exemplary professional qualifications.”
“Yet when the court discussed Thompson’s qualifications, it summarized her 15 years of experience in two sentences,” the high court wrote.
The Supreme Court ruled that “the risk of undermining the public’s confidence in the judicial process is high.” In turn, a different Douglas County district judge will sort through the mess.
“This will prevent injustice in future cases by encouraging judges to more carefully examine possible ground for disqualification,” the high court wrote. “There is little to lose and much to be gained by letting a different judge examine the (case).”