Firing fiasco turns court at law judges against each other

By Sahar Chmais
HAYS COUNTY – “You’re fired, you’re fired,” Chris Perez recalled Judge Millie Thompson yelling at him in her County Court at Law #3 (CCL) office. Almost everybody in the surrounding offices heard the yelling, but most people chose not to go on record because they are already under stress in what many claim is a hostile work environment.
A CCL employee, who asked to remain anonymous, stated in a Human Resources (HR) complaint that, “after watching and hearing [Thompson] explode on multiple colleagues, I became fearful for myself and those around me.” The complaint goes on to say, “she is rude, demeaning and hostile to everyone.”
In just three months of being the CCL #3 judge, Thompson has racked up three HR complaints against her and has put out a criminal trespass warning against CCL #2 Judge Chris Johnson.
As these complaints stack up, Perez, who filed a complaint to HR in late January, said the county has been unresponsive.
“I thought that with the complaint, Judge Thompson would change a little bit and correct the behavior,” the timid Perez said, “but nothing. She hasn’t changed her behavior, county hasn’t done anything more; it’s time to say something.”
The reason Thompson attempted to fire Perez was due to a docket scheduling issue. According to Perez, someone had scheduled a probate hearing on another judge’s docket. By the time Perez fixed the issue, it was late in the workday. At around 4:40 p.m., Perez emailed Thompson letting her know that she has a hearing the next morning. The hearing was also listed on the calendar the judges use to check their schedule, Perez explained.
Thompson missed the hearing because she was unaware of it. Her lawyer, George Lobb, who Thompson asked to speak on her behalf, said that it did not show up on her calendar. According to Lobb, Perez “set her up.”
Thompson’s work email is at work, and Perez sent the email after she had left the office, Lobb said. According to Lobb, Thompson had been having issues with accessing her work email from home.
Communicating with Thompson seems to be the heart of the conflict – one side states that there is an issue with access, but the other side states that Thompson chose email to be her main communication line.
“I tried to communicate with her prior to her first day taking office to see how she wanted dockets done and what not,” Perez told the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch. “She wasn’t very responsive; she doesn’t respond via text although she has a phone from the county that is for her use. Everything is via email, she wants everything written, so it’s very hard for me to communicate with her.”
Still, Lobb wonders why Perez did not talk to Thompson the next morning when he saw her unloading items into her office. That morning, her probate was set at 8:30 a.m. Perez said he did not see Thompson unloading these items and did not see her until 9:15 a.m. Thompson moved to fire Perez after this scheduling and communication incident, according to Lobb.
Thompson called Perez into her office; when he walked in, he left the door cracked open, unsure of how she would react because he had heard her yelling at the maintenance guy the day prior. The slim 5’4” Perez wanted to keep his distance from Thompson.
In his recollection, Thompson demanded that he reset the probate, then shoved the folder into his hands. After agreeing and beginning to walk away, Thompson demanded that Perez sit.
“I said ‘no I will not sit, I prefer to stand, what’s going on,” Perez recalled the event as he fiddled with his fingers. “She says ‘you’ve lied to me twice by omission. Spill.’”
Thompson asked Perez to “spill” several times without telling him why she believed he was lying. The last time she asked, she slammed her hand on the desk. Perez, unknowing of these allegations, said he cannot elaborate if he does not know what he is accused of.
“She snaps her fingers and says get out and she starts yelling at me at that time and begins to charge at me and she’s like ‘get out, get out! I’m stunned but I ask her to show me the proof,” Perez said. “She came at me wagging her finger telling me ‘you’re fired, you’re fired.’ I kind of just stand there because I’m in shock – I don’t know what she’s going to do.”
According to Perez, people were out of their offices in the hallway watching to see what happened.
“They were all shocked, surprised it happened with me because I am one of the nicest people in that office and I’m very quiet,” Perez said. “All I do is mind my business and just do my work. So for that to happen and then to attempt to fire me was appalling to all of them.”
Perez’s employee reviews also reiterate what his coworkers think of him. He was evaluated by two different judges and Perez had a near-perfect history in the CCL. In his latest review, which was done for 2019, he received a total of 128 points, the highest possible score.
Former Judge Tacie Zelhart, who was the CCL #3 judge before Thompson, wrote in her evaluation, “Chris is an amazing employee. He is a hard worker. We appreciate Chris’ professionalism, politeness and dedication to our office. Chris is an asset to our department.”
While Perez has generally kept to himself, he did not stand by to being fired.
Perez said he told Thompson that she does not have the authority to fire him because in Hays County courts at law, only the administrative judge, Chris Johnson, can fire the court coordinators. After this, Perez was told to work from home for a couple of weeks and then he was placed into Johnson’s service, no longer interacting with Thompson.
But the state code on hiring and firing court coordinators has caused some issue; Lobb is arguing against the way Hays County chooses to enact it.
According to Lobb, elected judges should have the right to hire and fire their court coordinator. Counties do not get to amend that; it is a problem of  “‘this is how we do it in Hays County,’ they got so used to it no one ever challenged it,” Lobb explained.
Thompson has been trying to appoint a court coordinator who works directly for her and no other judge, but because she does not have the authority in Hays County, she has taken this matter to court.
Late morning on Thursday, April 8, Thompson filed a petition for declaratory judgement in the Hays County District Court against CCL judges Johnson and Robert Updegrove, requesting that she be given authority over employees who would work directly in her office.
Thompson appealed to the Hays County Commissioners Court in late March to hire her own employees and was denied.

 

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Sahar Chmais holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She has been covering cities in Hays County for one year, touching on residents' struggles and successes, city issues, COVID-19 and more. Prior to reporting on the local spectrum, Sahar reported for a national news organization, covering gun violence. Sahar enjoys working as a local reporter because she gets to work with real people and their stories.

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