Fired Court Reporter Blames His Misconduct on Court Clerk

July 20, 2020

After the head court reporter in Manhattan’s civil courts was dismissed from his job, he filed a wrongful termination suit against his former employer giving an unusual reason for his misconduct.

John Phelps filed suit against the New York State Unified Court system seeking reinstatement to his job. He formerly supervised approximately 60 people working in four state courthouses. As a supervisor, he was to only “rarely” transcribe cases, but the judge who determined Phelps should be dismissed characterized him as a “bully” who threatened his subordinates.

According to the court documents, some colleagues testified in Phelps’ defense and spoke highly of him, but other witnesses said he did little actual supervising and took home tens of thousands of dollars per year by disregarding the part of his job description that said he should only “rarely” transcribe proceedings.

“As one who has devoted over half a century to public service, it is not easy to recommend the termination of employment of another public servant,” wrote Joseph Fisch, a retired judge who heard the court system’s case against Phelps. “But I cannot faithfully discharge my responsibility … by failing to take notice of the portrait of respondent that emerged after the evidence presented to me.”

Fisch wrote that Phelps was a “bully” who threatened to fire employees who crossed him. In addition, according to Fisch, Phelps “brazenly proclaimed his unqualified disdain for non-lucrative reporting work,” by saying, “I don’t do pro se” when he learned a party was self-represented and less likely to order a transcript.

In addition to his actions related to subordinates, Phelps was accused of misappropriating funds from an account the office had set up to buy gifts for judges and judicial staff.

According to the judicial hearing officer’s decision, Phelps was chronically late, delegated much of his administrative work to a “deputy” and picked plum reporting jobs for himself. He also “borrowed” thousands of dollars from an account meant to buy gifts for judges and his staff and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor petty theft in connection with his use of that money.

Phelps claims that “the court system crossed a line” by firing him, and says that the (now retired) Chief Clerk of the Manhattan Supreme Court Civil Term, John Werner, gave him permission to “work with referees or take daily assignments from judges” – the “plum” assignments, as evidenced by an email Phelps produced in which Werner said it was “no problem” for Phelps to take such assignments. However, it’s unclear whether Werner understood what that meant to the other court reporters in Phelps’ office, who were paid much less than Phelps, to have their boss competing with them financially, and whether Werner meant Phelps had carte blanche to take as many plum assignments as he wanted.