Second suit filed against Wilson County director of judicial commissioners

Pair of suits allege sexual harassment and hostile work environment

By: - February 24, 2022 6:30 am
Wilson County Courthouse. (Photo: Wilson County Facebook)

Wilson County Courthouse. (Photo: Wilson County Facebook)

A second Wilson County judicial commissioner has filed suit against the county and its director of judicial commissioners, claiming he was ordered not to speak to state or county officials about work-related concerns, which include sexual harassment and secret cameras in his office building.

Christopher Miller, whose term as judicial commissioner expires in March, also alleges “matters of public concern” and safety issues. Miller claims that members of the public are forced to wait for days before petitions for orders of protection are heard, law enforcement has been ordered to turn off body worn cameras inside the judicial building and judicial commissioners have been directed to set minimum bonds for certain offenses, contrary to state law.

Miller’s lawsuit, filed in federal court on Tuesday, comes three months after ex-judicial commissioner Patricia Hamblin filed a lawsuit containing similar workplace abuse allegations.

Both suits name Lisa Coltogirone, appointed to the newly created position of director of judicial commissioners last year.

Mike Jennings, an attorney defending Coltogirone and Wilson County in the suit, did not return a message left with an assistant seeking comment.

Coltogirone supervises nine judicial commissioners, whose function is similar to magistrates. Judicial commissioners, who do not have to be attorneys, can issue search and arrest warrants, orders of protection, appoint attorneys for indigent defendants and set bonds, alleviating caseloads in front of judges.

Two lawsuits against Wilson County’s director of judicial commissioners allege sexual harassment and creation of a hostile work environment, while one suit involves a bizarre entrapment scheme.  

The pair of lawsuits claim Coltogirone created a hostile work environment after she took the job, installing cameras inside the office space occupied by judicial commissioners that fed directly to her phone. She issued memos barring commissioners from speaking to county elected officials, included in the lawsuit. The lawsuits also allege Coltogirone engaged in sexual harassment of her subordinates, in separate incidents both commissioners claim involved Coltogirone deliberately exposing her crotch while hiking up her legs or putting her feet on a desk.

Miller’s suit additionally alleges a bizarre scheme intended to entrap Miller into committing official misconduct that involved Coltogirone’s husband, Michael Coltogirone, Felicia Hale, a sitting judicial commissioner, and Charles Hubner, a private citizen.

Hubner, according to the lawsuit, posed as an interested buyer of a home listed for sale. He contacted Miller, who is a registered real estate agent in addition to being a commissioner.

Judicial commissioners cannot legally work other jobs during the hours they are scheduled to serve as commissioners. A public scandal involving a former judicial commissioner found to be working at a bowling alley when he was scheduled to preside as commissioner prompted Wilson County officials to create a new oversight position of director of judicial commissioners, then hire Coltogirone to fill it. Miller was not scheduled to work on the days he was acting as a real estate agent, according to his attorney Jerry Gonzalez.

While Hubner contacted Miller about the home for sale, Michael Coltogirone and Hale, the judicial commissioner, sat in Coltogirone’s parked truck across the street from the house, according to the lawsuit.

Then, the lawsuit alleges, Coltogirone climbed into a tree adjacent to the home and started recording video.

The owner of the home listed for sale grew suspicious seeing the truck parked outside for a prolonged period of time then witnessing its owner climb a nearby tree, the lawsuit said. The homeowner approached the truck and demanded Coltogirone get out of the tree, the lawsuit said.

Hale later apologized to the homeowner, saying her “purpose was to catch (Miller) working when she thought (Miller) should not have been working,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also makes allegations of sexual harassment against Lisa Coltogirone.

Coltogirone would use “seductive body positions while speaking with (Miller) in the office that made him uncomfortable. These included leaning over his desk and revealing cleavage, violating his personal space, and putting her arm across the back of his chair.” She also “hiked her leg up onto a chair while wearing a dress and exposed her groin area to the (Miller) who was seated,” the lawsuit said.

The overall pattern I see is a rather deep-rooted culture of complete lack of leadership in Wilson County. The county commissioners, the mayor don't want to be involved and have historically given department heads a lot of leeway because they don't want to be involved.

– Jerry Gonzalez, attorney for plaintiffs Hamblin and Miller

Miller reported claims of sexual harassment and allegations of a hostile workplace to a county commissioner and county human resources official in May, 2021 and in August he filed a complaint with the EEOC, which remains pending, the lawsuit said. After he filed complaints, Coltogirone assigned him a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, instead of his regularly scheduled 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift, and denied him consecutive days off, the lawsuit said. In January, Miller’s contract, set to end in March, was not renewed.

Miller’s sexual harassment allegations mirror claims in the November lawsuit filed by Hamblin.

“Coltogirone went up to her desk and put her right foot up on the desk exposing her crotch and leaned over with her elbow on her knee and spoke to (Hamblin). (Hamblin) felt uncomfortable and looked out the window while Coltogirone was speaking,” that lawsuit said.

Coltogirone has since filed a counter-lawsuit against Hamblin, saying that claims she had acted in a sexually suggestive manner had been circulated on social media and elsewhere were “false and defamatory.”

“This alleged activity of physically exposing a private part of one’s body, as Hamblin claims happened, is preposterous on its face,” the countersuit said. “Ms. Coltogirone is a licensed professional, an attorney who has also served as a law enforcement officer. She would never engage in the type of activity which Hamblin claims occurred. The alleged conduct did not occur.”

An outside legal counsel hired to investigate Hamblin’s allegations found they could not be substantiated, the counter suit said.

Both lawsuits outline efforts by the two former judicial commissioners to take their complaints about Coltogirone county officials.

“The overall pattern I see is a rather deep-rooted culture of complete lack of leadership in Wilson County,” said Jerry Gonzalez, an attorney who represents both former judicial commissioners. “The county commissioners, the mayor don’t want to be involved and have historically given department heads a lot of leeway because they don’t want to be involved.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said commissioners cannot legally work second jobs in certain circumstances, including medical leave. The reference may have led to the incorrect inference that Christopher Miller, a licensed real estate agent in addition to being a Wilson County judicial commissioner, was on medical leave when he was contacted on the pretext to show a home for sale, an incident alleged in the lawsuit.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.