(JTA) – An Ohio woman who alleged six years ago that she had been fired because she was an observant Jew has won $1.1 million in damages after a federal jury sided with her.
Kimberly Edelstein had been working as a magistrate in Butler County, Ohio, when she asked her supervisor — a judge — for eight days off during the fall High Holidays, according to the lawsuit she filed in 2017.
“Holy cow, eight days!” Common Pleas Judge Greg Stephens yelled back at her, according to the lawsuit. She was fired four days later and claims the judge and two prosecutors named in the lawsuit disparaged her to other employers, making it difficult for her to find work.
Her lawsuit spun through the court system where she once worked for the next several years. Judges dismissed Edelstein’s claims against one prosecutor and ruled against her appeal of the case against the other. But they allowed her religious discrimination claim against Judge Stephens to go forward to a jury trial, saying there was evidence that could find the judge’s dismissal “at least in part” motivated by Edelstein’s desire to observe the Jewish holidays.
The trial against Judge Stephens began Jan. 23 and included testimony from a rabbi. The jury returned its verdict late on Friday, taking less than a day to deliberate.
“The jury’s finding is an important reminder that the law provides protections to those seeking accommodations for religious beliefs and practices,” Rabbi Ari Ballaban, director of the Cincinnati Jewish Community Relations Council, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in a statement. “Neither employers nor government institutions may retaliate against Jews (or other religious minorities) for seeking to exercise their protected religious rights.”
The jury’s finding comes amid growing attention to workplace antisemitism. A recent nonscientific survey found that a significant portion of hiring managers said they are less likely to advance candidates who are Jewish; while the survey had flaws, it ignited a conversation about whether workplace antisemitism could be rising alongside other expressions of antisemitism in the United States.
Edelstein’s case has cost Butler County, located outside Cincinnati, at least $100,000 in legal fees to date, according to local reports, and more than 200 documents have been filed. It may not be totally over.
“We strongly believe that the evidence didn’t support the verdict and we’re considering options,” an attorney representing Judge Stephens told the Journal-News, a local paper.
Edelstein’s case had been met with some skepticism from the local legal community. She “had a very poor reputation around the courthouse,” Daniel Phillips, a Jewish former assistant prosecuting attorney in Butler County, wrote in a 2019 letter to Cincinnati’s Jewish newspaper, the American Israelite.
“Many people advised Judge Stephens to terminate her when he took office. He rejected that advice and gave her a clean slate and an opportunity to succeed,” Phillips wrote at the time. “When she failed to act in [a] professional manner and produce quality work, he fired her. Because of her failures she is now besmirching three good men with the taint of racism. That is shameful.” Phillips was elected to the position of county juvenile court judge last year.
Court filings show that Edelstein accused Stephens, who is also a Baptist pastor, of “extreme Christian” beliefs and of following a doctrine with an “attitude toward Jews,” and also said that his court had made fun of her description of Passover preparations.
In 2019, as her lawsuit was making its way through the courts, Edelstein told the Cincinnati Enquirer she had experienced suicidal thoughts after being unable to find work. She applied for nearly 200 jobs in the aftermath of her firing but didn’t get any of them, she said, adding that she had resorted to using food pantries to feed her family. Court documents showed that Jewish Vocational Services, a local nonprofit, was reluctant to help her for fear of litigation.
“I’ve lost my career and I didn’t do anything to deserve this,” she told the Enquirer. She also reportedly told friends she wished she wasn’t Jewish and stopped going to synagogue. Subsequent posts on her Facebook page indicate she has continued to observe at least some Jewish practices.
Edelstein did manage to briefly land one legal job, in a courthouse near Bowling Green, but lied to her bosses about being fired from her previous job and was forced to resign months later.
Edelstein has mostly represented herself in these proceedings. She briefly retained the services of a local attorney who left the case after five weeks, telling the judge that “the client does not cooperate with counsel.”