A former Wilson County judicial commissioner has filed a lawsuit against the county and her director alleging misconduct and retaliatory behavior that created an inhospitable work environment, which ultimately resulted in her departure from the department.
That departure, according to the plaintiff, Patricia Hamblin, was prompted by a simple message taken out of context by Wilson County Director of Judicial Commissioners Lisa Coltogirone.
The lawsuit against Wilson County and Coltogirone was filed last week in U.S. District Court Middle District of Tennessee Nashville Division by Hamblin.
According to the lawsuit obtained by the Democrat, Hamblin was employed as a judicial commissioner after being appointed by the Wilson County Commission to a four-year term ending in March 2022.
A judicial commissioner’s role includes issuance of search warrants, appointment of attorneys, setting and approving bonds.
Hamblin has served as a judicial commissioner since her first appointment in March of 2010. She was subsequently appointed to hold the position in 2014 and again in 2018.
The lawsuit states that through her tenure until the time of her 2021 termination, Hamblin was “never disciplined or otherwise reprimanded for her performance.”
Due to county judicial commissioners being appointed for a set term by the county commission, the Attorney General of Tennessee issued a formal opinion on Aug. 7, 2000, that judicial commissioners could only be removed from office by ouster on grounds such as misconduct in office, neglect of duty, public intoxication, illegal gambling or any act constituting a violation of a penal statute.
The lawsuit states, “(Hamblin) has never committed or even been accused of any acts which would justify an ouster proceeding.”
Coltogirone was appointed in February as the director of judicial commissioners by the county commission.
According to the lawsuit, on the same day as her appointment, Coltogirone “went up to (Hamblin’s) office to speak to her … Coltogirone went up to her desk and put her right foot up on the desk exposing her crotch and leaned over her elbow on her knee and spoke to the plaintiff.”
The lawsuit states that this made Hamblin feel uncomfortable.
Per the lawsuit, the very next day, Coltogirone began issuing memos that included directives out of line with state law about mandating a minimum bond. Tennessee doesn’t allow for a minimum bail, as all bails are set on a case-by-case basis.
Then, on March 19, Coltogirone held a meeting with judicial commissioners where she stated a new office policy prohibiting judicial commissioners from communicating with the district attorney.
A second directive forbade the communication from any judicial commissioners to the DA’s office, any county commissioner, or anyone on the judicial committee about anything related to the commissioners office. It stated that disobeying this directive would result in a write-up.
According to the lawsuit, that happened to two of Hamblin’s colleagues after contacting the DA’s office about work-related matters, and it had a chilling effect on Hamblin’s willingness to come forward about the incidents involving Coltogirone that made her uncomfortable.
A dispute over coverage of travel expenses boiled over between Hamblin and Coltogirone regarding a training conference in Murfreesboro in which Coltogirone ordered the commissioners to travel back and forth daily despite an offer from the Judicial Commissioners Association of Tennessee to pay for lodging throughout the conference.
Even with the offer from the Judicial Commissioners Association of Tennessee to cover overnight expenses, Coltogirone refused to budge, a move that Hamblin tried to explain would cost the county money.
During an exchange with Coltogirone, a remark by Hamblin was misconstrued as a resignation. When Hamblin attempted to explain that when she said “I quit,” she was referring to her stance about the conference travel expenses and the fallout with Coltogirone, rather than tendering and official resignation. Coltogirone took it as a legitimate resignation notice, and even when Hamblin attempted to clarify and recall any misunderstanding, Coltogirone said that it’s not up for recall.
When Hamblin contacted Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto, he said, “I don’t care whether you drive or whether you stay. That’s none of my business. I don’t govern your office from here. Simply because it’s supposed to be set autonomous to where the judges, or me, or the sheriff don’t control you all. That’s why you don’t have any oversight, really, there from any of us. So I don’t really have anything to do with your office or tell you you can or can’t or all that stuff. I’m really kind of detached from your office by way of the law, Mike Jennings says.”
The counts alleged of Coltogirone include a first amendment retaliation. It states, “The conduct of Coltogirone in retaliating against judicial commissioners who exercised their rights under the first amendment to speak about issues of public concern constitute a practice and pattern and de facto policy of Wilson County.”
The lawsuit also alleges a count of First Amendment prior restraint when Coltogirone ordered Hamblin and the other judicial commissioners not to speak to anyone else, including elected officials about job-related matters.
While those counts are alleged against both the county and Coltogirone, a separate count of slander was also levied against the latter. The lawsuit states that Coltogirone committed slander by suggesting that Hamblin, a wife of 40 years, only wanted to stay overnight at the conference to stay with her boyfriend. The lawsuit alleges that Coltogirone knew the state was false, yet made it with reckless disregard for the truth.
Coltogirone was contacted by the Lebanon Democrat, but declined to comment on the matter, referring all questions to the Wilson County Attorney Mike Jennings.
Jennings was contacted for comment but had not responded by the Democrat‘s press deadline. In addition, the Wilson County Human Resources Office had not returned requests for personnel files by the press deadline.