December 30, 2022

Kings County Supreme Court Judge Karen B. Rothenberg issued a decision earlier this month giving Surrogate Harriet Thompson access to her chambers once again. In December 2021, amid a bias and discrimination investigation by the New York Office of Court Administration, Thompson was barred from her chambers, and her cases were reassigned to Acting Surrogate Carol R. Edmead. Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks issued the order which suspended Thompson with pay.

Shortly after Marks' order, Thompson filed a lawsuit, pursuant to CPLR Article 78, seeking to overturn her suspension on the basis that Judge Marks and the Office of Court Administration lacked authority to suspend her. Thompson claimed that the suspension was retaliation for a multi-year dispute with Kings County Public Administrator Richard Buckheit, who resigned from the position at the end of 2021. Marks' court papers do not allege that the dispute played a role in the suspension.

This month's decision vacates the portion of the administrative order that required Thompson to "surrender all keys, access cards and other means of entry to Unified Court System (UCS) courts and facilities, as well as any UCS-provided computer or other equipment in her control." However, the decision leaves the reassignment of Thompson's docket in effect. The decision permits Thompson to renew her petition if OCA fails to reinstate her caseload after the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct has had a reasonable time to investigate the charges against her. Judge Marks has stated in prior court filings that, on December 3, 2021, he "received a confidential report of an investigation conducted by the UCS Office of the Inspector General [] which substantiated allegations that [Thompson] had engaged in inappropriate conduct." Marks stated that he requested the investigation after learning of "serious allegations of misconduct." It is not clear exactly when the Commission on Judicial Conduct began its investigation, but more than a year has passed since Thompson's suspension.

Rothenberg stayed her decision for 30 days, which gives OCA time to appeal.

As a technical matter, Rothenberg noted that Thompson requested a declaratory judgment as to OCA's authority to suspend her, which is "customarily not an appropriate vehicle for challenging administrative determinations." But it was clear to Rothenberg that Thompson's primary relief sought was the vacatur of the administrative order and reinstatement of her duties as Surrogate.

On December 20, 2021, Carol R. Edmead was appointed as Acting Surrogate of Kings County. Edmead is slated to retire at the end of 2022 and was known during her 1-year tenure to efficiently process estate proceedings, a normally lengthy process in highly-populated Kings County which worsened amid the COVID pandemic.

Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Bernard Graham was appointed as Acting Surrogate to follow Edmead in 2023. Judge Graham was elected to the Supreme Court in 2014.

Kings County Surrogate is an elected position with a 14-year term. There have been two Surrogate judges presiding concurrently in Brooklyn since the mid-2000s. The only other county in New York State with two Surrogates is New York County. The other 60 counties have only one.

Surrogate Thompson, and subsequently the acting Surrogates, handle approximately half of the estate matters in Brooklyn. The other half are assigned to Surrogate Rosemarie Montalbano, who was elected in 2021.

Daniel R. Antonelli
Representing trust & estate clients with an emphasis on estate litigation in the New York City Metro Area.
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