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Problems persist in Suffolk Probate Court

Employees cite ongoing discrimination, mismanagement under interim director

Yawu Miller | 7/5/2017, 11 a.m.

In the four months since Felix D. Arroyo was removed from his post as the Suffolk County Register of Probate, lines remain long, case files still go missing and staff treat people of color — including filers, attorneys and staff — with blatant disrespect, according to staff and attorneys interviewed by the Banner.

Two weeks ago, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice issued a report alleging “a toxic racially-charged hostile environment that fosters identity-based harassment” in the Trial Court, which administers the registry of Suffolk Probate Court.

Registry employees say instances of racial and sexual harassment have gotten worse since Arroyo was deposed by a court administrator.

Questionable impact

Three registry employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Arroyo’s successor, Terry Klug Cafazzo, has turned a blind eye to instances of discrimination.

The staff members recounted instances of discrimination and assert that changes Cafazzo has instituted has done little to improve the office environment. In some cases, they say things are worse. Two attorneys who file cases regularly with the registry, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, backed up the employees’ claims, noting that they routinely spend hours waiting in line just to be seen by registry staff.

“The average for me is three to four hours, just to put in a case,” one attorney said. “It can take up to seven hours.”

Forced out

Arroyo’s dismissal occurred on February 3, after a report prepared by Cafazzo cited him for mismanagement. Arroyo has maintained that he sought to improve registry operations, but was sabotaged by longtime office staff and denied requests to bring on senior managers to make needed adjustments.

After Arroyo’s departure, Cafazzo was allowed to bring in two assistant managers and three additional case specialists. But probate staff interviewed by the Banner said that the changes she put in place have not improved workflow or productivity. For example, staff report that Cafazzo halted use of case tracking software, thereby making it impossible to accurately quantify how many cases go missing.

“The cases get lost easily,” a probate staff member said. “Almost every day there are cases missing.”

Cafazzo also eliminated a separate “language line” Arroyo set up to service complainants who are not fluent in English. Attorneys cited in news reports say the separate line made overall wait times longer, but those interviewed by the Banner said eliminating the lines made no difference in wait times.

“Most of the people who come into the court speak Spanish, Haitian creole, Cape Verdean creole,” a probate staff member said.

Probate staff also told the Banner that Cafazzo ended the practice of stamping filings to indicate that a claimant needs an interpreter.

A spokeswoman for the Trial Court did not respond to a request for comment by the Banner’s press deadline.

One efficiency outcome of a Cafazzo decision: Checks to pay for processing fees are now deposited before the paperwork is complete. Under Arroyo’s watch, staff were required to make sure the filers were paying the correct filing fee before checks were deposited. The downside of that change is that filers, who often struggle to understand the arcane fee structures for probate matters, often overpay.

“With [Cafazzo], if you pay the wrong amount, we take the money and then you have to fill out the paperwork for a refund,” a staff member said. “It can take weeks or even months to get a refund.”