This Proselytizing Bad Boss Fired His Employee After She Asked Off for the Jewish Holidays
In 2016, attorney Kimberly Edelstein asked for time off to observe some of the most sacred days on the Jewish calendar.
“Holy cow!” exclaimed her Christian boss, Gregory Stephens, according to testimony in a case filed later by Edelstein. “Eight days?!”
Edelstein was terminated shortly afterward by Stephens, an Ohio state judge who was also a Baptist preacher and a door-to-door proselytizer. Stephens believes, he testified, that Jews and other people who don’t accept Jesus as their savior are destined for hell.
At trial, Stephens said that neither Edelstein’s religion nor her leave request (which he granted before firing her) was a factor in her termination. Instead, he told jurors, he was punishing poor work behavior by Edelstein that was largely reported by another employee — the judge’s now-deceased judicial assistant, who Edelstein testified had hissed at her as she gathered her belongings:
“Hey, Jew, get your stuff packed yet?”
The judge didn’t investigate these negative reports about Edelstein before firing her, he testified; he saw no reason to doubt his assistant’s motives.
Gregory Stephens is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Edelstein filed a lawsuit against Stephens in federal court, claiming religious discrimination and other wrongdoing. On February 3, 2023, after a nine-day trial at which Edelstein represented herself against her former boss — in part, she testified, because no local attorney wanted to sue a judge — a jury found that Stephens had violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the religious practice of government employees.
Jurors awarded Edelstein $1.12 million in damages; the case remains in post-trial motions.
Edelstein wasn’t raised Jewish, she testified, but she chose Judaism after taking a college class on world religions. She learned Hebrew and now prays in it; she later married an Orthodox Jewish man and still keeps a kosher house — two complete sets of dishes, for example, one for meat and one for dairy.
At trial, she educated the Cincinnati jury on the basics of her faith, which she described as “a life of ritual.” She evidently felt a need to dispel some offensive stereotypes: Orthodox Jews, she told jurors, “are incredibly generous. They are not at all stingy.”
The first member of her family to get a bachelor’s degree, Edelstein also earned a master’s degree and then — after her plan for a State Department career was derailed by a Clinton-era hiring freeze — a law degree, which she funded with scholarships, loans, and by working as a barista and at a Subway shop.
Around 2007, Edelstein was hired as a staff attorney and magistrate for Judge Patricia Oney of the Butler County Court of Common Pleas in Hamilton, Ohio, a city on the northern outskirts of Cincinnati. Her duties included drafting decisions for Oney; conducting status reports; and hearing certain types of cases, such as stalking protection orders.
Edelstein worked easily with her judge to accommodate the demands of her faith, she testified, including a period each fall during which she had to take off eight workdays, scattered across a few weeks that start with Rosh Hashanah.
By 2014, however, Judge Oney began having medical issues. Edelstein testified that she stepped up to help, handling Oney’s entire civil docket, including jury trials, until the judge’s sudden retirement at the end of 2015. What followed was a revolving cast of visiting judges, while Edelstein “prayed a lot” for a permanent replacement who would keep her on staff.
Finally, in March 2016, Greg Stephens arrived at the court after being appointed as Oney’s replacement by Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“I was thrilled … that I was going to get a judge,” Edelstein told jurors. “And hopefully — hopefully — I could keep my job.”
Stephens had spent most of his career as a criminal prosecutor. He brought along two of his own staff: Melinda Barger as judicial assistant and Jamie Wilson as bailiff. None of the newcomers had much experience in civil cases, and Stephens opted to keep Edelstein in her role. Edelstein testified that she and the new judge agreed to give each other a three-month notice if things weren’t working out.
At first, the transition was normal. Seeking connection with Barger and Wilson, Edelstein opened up about her religious obligations — talking about the need to deep-clean her house, down to the smallest breadcrumb, in preparation for Passover — but was rattled by a jokey, disrespectful response to her faith.
“It made me uncomfortable,” she testified, “and so I just didn’t talk to them about [my religious practice] anymore. … But other than that, we didn’t have a poor relationship.”
Relations with Stephens seemed solid, too, apart from some gripes about her cluttered office. Edelstein handled much of his civil docket, she told jurors, since he was more familiar with criminal work. At a birthday lunch for bailiff Wilson, the judge complimented Edelstein’s work.
Barely two weeks later, however, she was fired.
Before asking for time off to observe the upcoming Jewish holidays, Edelstein testified, she’d never discussed her religion with Stephens — and she was genuinely shocked by his “yelling” in response. Stephens could be touchy and exacting, she told jurors, once blowing up because a document listed his name with a wrong middle initial, but he was fundamentally “a very quiet person.”
At the time, Edelstein didn’t know the details of Stephen’s Baptist faith and preaching. In court, she put him on the stand to explain it all: His years on the pulpit, his concept of heaven and hell, his door-to-door attempts to engage non-believers, his view of Judaism, his opinion on whether those who don’t follow Jesus are damned or just “lost.”
(Either way, he testified, they end up in hell, possibly cast into a “lake of fire.”)
Did he have any Jewish friends, she asked? Maybe two or three “at best,” he replied, but he didn’t know if they were observant.
Then he corrected himself: “I actually did fail to point out, Jesus himself … was an observant Jew.”
And did he consider Jesus to be a Jewish friend?
Stephens acknowledged that he’d set the gears turning on Edelstein’s termination almost immediately after she requested her leave, but he insisted that the events were unrelated. He fired her on a Monday morning, the second workday after her request, saying only that she didn’t “fit in,” Edelstein testified.
After litigation started, Stephens offered more specific reasons. Based partly on reports from his assistant Barger, who he said “wouldn’t have any reason to misrepresent something like that,” he cited Edelstein’s insubordination, procrastination, rudeness, and conflicts with Barger and other staff — many of which he couldn’t recall in detail, and none of which he flagged, tried to fix, or documented in real time, he conceded in court.
“I found you very disagreeable and difficult to work with,” he told Edelstein in front of the jurors. “You had a very contentious personality [that] I knew was not going to change.”
(Assistant Barger, who had supposedly hissed at Edelstein as she left, died in 2021. Many of her descriptions of Edelstein’s work behavior were contradicted by the testimony of other witnesses, according to court documents — including by bailiff Wilson, who described Barger to jurors as “abrasive” and “nasty.”)
The firing itself had taken place in Edelstein’s office, with Barger “smirking” behind the judge as he delivered the news, Edelstein testified. In shock, Edelstein begged to be allowed resign with three month’s notice, but to no avail: She was told to leave by noon.
The ensuing months and years were very difficult, she testified. Previously her family’s main provider, she now struggled to feed them, falling back on charity from her own religious community.
“They helped me with the food pantry,” she testified. “They helped feed my children. We couldn’t make rent one month — they paid my rent.”
Work was hard to find. According to her lawsuit, Stephens’ colleagues were bad-mouthing her around town. “Within a week, it seemed that the networking possibilities were closed off to me,” she testified.
Without a government job, Edelstein’s student loans no longer were headed for forgiveness. She and her husband, who worked at Wal-Mart, sold off furniture and other belongings. Tensions grew within the family; she developed depression and diabetes; and eventually her husband left her, she testified.
Desperate for money, Edelstein applied for janitorial jobs and even approached the local McDonald’s — she had worked at the fast-food chain during college — only for the manager there to laugh at her, she told jurors.
“He said, ‘You’re a lawyer? … What did you do wrong?‘”
Stung, she considered altering her résumé to delete all of her legal experience, just so she’d be taken more seriously by low-wage employers. Finally, just a few months before the trial, she began working as a sales consultant. She now earns $55,000 a year, she testified, well below her 2016 salary at the Butler County court.
After finding in her favor on February 4, jurors awarded Edelstein $835,000 in back pay, plus a further $250,000 for her emotional and other non-monetary harms. They levied a further $35,000 in punitive damages against Stephens for “conduct which was malicious or in reckless disregard of [Edelstein’s] rights.”
Stephens remains listed as an active judge in Butler County. His former bailiff Jamie Wilson testified at trial that she finally quit her position last year after working with him for more than two decades, telling jurors that she had tired of behavior that, according to her, Stephens himself acknowledged as “toxic” and “destructive.”
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Edelstein v. Stephens. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.
Kimberly Edelstein represented herself in the case.