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Felix Arroyo alleges bias in Probate Court’s performance review

Questions impartiality of investigation into administration of Probate Court

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Felix Arroyo alleges bias in Probate Court’s performance review
Félix D. Arroyo

The release of a scathing report on operations in the probate office has ratcheted up the tension in Suffolk County Register of Probate Félix Arroyo’s fight for reinstatement to the post from which Trial Court Supervisor Harry Spence removed him last month.

Arroyo, who repeatedly has called for an open investigation, published dozens of pages of material on his website in support of his claims that the suspension he was handed on Feb. 3 is unjust and unwarranted. These documents include the suspension letter from Spence and Arroyo’s response to it.

The Trial Court made public an assessment that alleges poor performance by the Registry on Arroyo’s watch. The assessment was written by Terri Klug Cafazzo, who received a promotion to Acting Register of Probate as a result of Arroyo’s suspension.

In the letter suspending Arroyo, Spence maintains that Cafazzo’s assessment was the basis of the suspension. In his March 13 response to Spence, Arroyo called the assessment “self-serving,” alleging that Cafazzo had an interest in making the situation seem worse than it was. According to salary figures made public by the Boston Herald, Cafazzo made $112,468 before being placed at the Suffolk Registry of Probate and is now making $134,692.

Arroyo hit back at Spence and Cafazzo with a fact sheet on his website laying out a defense of his record since taking over the long-troubled office two years ago, noting that much of the dysfunction detailed in Cafazzo’s report happened under the watch of Spence himself, who ran the court the year prior to Arroyo’s term.

“From April of 2011 through January 2015, when Arroyo was sworn in, the Suffolk County Registry of Probate and Family Court was under the direct management of the Trial Court for 33 out of 44 months, most of that time under Harry Spence,” reads a fact sheet posted on Arroyo’s website.

Arroyo was elected register of probate in 2014 after Spence removed former Register Patricia Campatelli following allegations she struck an employee and engaged in other acts of misconduct. Employees in the probate court who spoke to the Banner on the condition of anonymity said Arroyo has faced resistance from long-term employees in the office since he began his six-year term in 2015.

Mismanagement or sabotage?

Cafazzo’s report claims that files go missing on a daily basis, checks are unprocessed and attorneys and those representing themselves face long wait times. Arroyo maintains that he has been stymied in his attempts to reform the court, inheriting a workforce resistant to changes, including his hiring of people of color who spoke the same languages as many of the petitioners who appear at the office to file for divorce, custody, name changes and other matters handled by the probate court.

In removing Arroyo, Spence alleged mismanagement based on the findings of Cafazzo’s assessment.

“It was a place for employees to make work disappear,” the report reads. “There were thousands of pleadings dating as far back [as] 2015 not docketed or scanned. This procedural meltdown created chaos for not only litigants but the judicial staff as well.”

Arroyo maintains that some longtime staff members were resentful of changes he was making, including nearly doubling the percentage of people of color working in the registry from 26 percent when he started to 45 percent today. Two trial court employees, who spoke to the Banner on condition of anonymity, corroborated allegations that long-term staff routinely stalled cases coming through the probate court by hiding or failing to file paperwork and checks.

“As self-serving as Cafazzo’s assessment is, it only affirms our claim that there was intentional sabotage on the part of some of the staff that Félix inherited or were placed in his office by Trial Court administrators,” said Arroyo spokesman Patrick Keaney.

On his website, Arroyo says that budget constraints led to the Probate Court workforce shrinking to two-thirds its size relative to ten years ago. Although Arroyo requested funds to hire new employees, those requests were denied, according to Keaney.

Investigation ordered

Cafazzo’s report alleges the lack of training took its toll on the operations of the court.

“Due to the employees not having proper training, they were misinforming litigants, handing out incorrect paperwork, which ultimately translated into double the work load and an unhappy customer,” reads an excerpt of the report.

While the register of probate’s office by statute is entitled to four senior staff, Arroyo says he was denied his request to fill all four positions. In October of last year, Spence placed Cafazzo in Arroyo’s office as an operations manager. In February Spence removed Arroyo and appointed Cafazzo acting register.

Spence has ordered an investigation of Arroyo’s tenure at the registry, appointing former Probate Court Justice Anthony Nesi to conduct the investigation using questions drafted by Spence. A spokeswoman for the court said Spence did not specify whom Nesi was interviewing for this investigation.