Two of the cases that got Fayette Family Court Judge Kathy Stein suspended twice in six months involved the same attorney, according to court records.
The number and proximity of the suspensions is unusual, the chief of the state judicial oversight group said.
And Stein’s decision in favor of a client of Osborne Green PLLC’s Crystal Osborne in one case was so problematic, the law firm was ordered by a different family court judge to pay part of the attorney’s fees for the opposing side.
Judicial Conduct Commission chairman Stephen D. Wolnitzek, who has been with the commission since 1996, had trouble recalling another instance where a judge had been suspended twice in about 26 weeks.
“It is unusual,” Wolnitzek said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Wolnitzek declined to talk about the commission’s investigation of Stein’s rulings. Stein’s attorney, Jim Deckard, could not be reached for comment despite repeated inquiries from the Herald-Leader. But court and commission records reveal the details of both cases.
The complaint resulting in Stein’s first suspension last fall involved an emergency order granted on Dec. 4, 2015, in the custody case of Carlie Schindler and Charles Schindler, who was represented by Crystal Osborne. Carlie Schindler had sole custody of the couple’s child.
On Dec. 4, 2015, Osborne told Stein in court that Carlie Schindler had applied for a passport for the child.. Carlie Schindler’s attorney, Michael Davidson, was not in court due to an engagement he had disclosed beforehand to the court, and Schindler was at work.
Osborne convinced Stein, a former state lawmaker who was appointed to the bench in 2013 by Gov. Steve Beshear and elected in 2014, to call the child’s school from the courtroom and order the girl be released into the custody of Charles Schindler. He had not had any unsupervised contact with his child in more than seven years, according to court documents.
Osborne said that Kay Hubbard, the licensed clinical social worker assigned to the child, told her that if Carlie Schindler “applied for a passport, she’s running,” the court transcript stated.
Stein’s decision allowed Charles Schindler to pick up his daughter from school and subsequently take her to Mississippi.
Three days later, Hubbard asserted in an affidavit that she “never made any such statement to Ms. Osborne indicating that I had said or believed that (Carlie) had any intent to flee this jurisdiction.”
On Dec. 9, 2015, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled that Stein “erred” in granting the emergency motion.
“To alleviate this harm, and to ensure the best interests of this child are fully considered, this court orders the parties be returned to the status quo,” said court of appeals Judge Christopher Nickell.
Carlie Schindler filed a complaint with the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission. On Sept. 12, the commission announced that Stein would be suspended without pay from Sept. 28 through Oct. 4.
“I jumped the gun and did not give the mother an opportunity to be heard,” Stein said in September.
Davidson, Carlie Schindler’s attorney, filed a motion on Dec. 15 to have the legal fees his client incurred from Dec. 4, 2015, through Jan. 29, 2016, paid for by Osborne Green PLLC, which Osborne registered with the state in July 2016. Judge Timothy Philpot issued a 10-page document criticizing Osborne’s actions and ordered her firm to pay $10,000 of Davidson’s fees.
“Once again, the lack of perfect honesty and perfect truth led to the result of the case,” Philpot wrote. “It is the duty of every good lawyer to not only convince his or her client to tell the whole truth, but also to do the same themselves. If a lawyer cannot do that, a lawyer should not accept an appointment as an attorney in the case.”
Philpot’s Dec. 29 ruling states that Osborne was represented by Jim Deckard, the same attorney that represents Stein in the suspensions.
A dispute over the custody of a 3-year-old led to Stein’s second suspension. Rai-Tonicia King was seeking custody of her niece. The child’s mother is Joian Adams. King was represented by Britton Osborne Johnson PLLC’s Crystal Osborne and Lauren Hart. (Osborne was removed from the name of the company in legal paperwork filed in August with the state and effective Sept. 1. She was no longer listed as a member of the company in its March annual report.)
Adams appeared in Stein’s court without an attorney May 20. Osborne was not in court on May 20, according to video records from that day, but Osborne’s name was listed first on the court document that called for a change in custody.
“Rather than continue the matter to give the respondent (Adams) an opportunity to obtain counsel, Judge Stein continued with the proceeding,” the conduct commission’s order stated.
In fact, on that day, King and her attorney acknowledged that another evidentiary hearing was needed in the case. Nevertheless, Stein “proceeded to grant permanent sole custody of the child” to King, according to the order.
“Judge Stein did so without requiring the petitioner to provide evidence or testimony that she was the de facto custodian and that it was in the best interest of the child that she be given permanent custody of the child,” the commission’s agreed order said.
The commission said Stein violated several canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct, including those that give everyone with a legal interest in a case the right to be heard and that require judges to take care of cases “promptly, efficiently and fairly.” Stein also failed “to maintain high standards of conduct and ... uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary” and failed “to comply with the law and act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.”
In an interview Thursday, Adams said she made the complaint about Stein after hearing about the Schindler case and because she felt like Judge Stein and the opposing attorney in the case acted “like they were friends.” Video records show that Osborne’s colleague appeared in court during that hearing.
“The way that my case was handled that day, it was like my sister’s lawyer and Judge Stein had lunch. It was like they were friends. That’s the vibe they put out, like they’re friends outside of this courtroom,” Adams said. “I had never seen anything like it. … I was totally disregarded. Anything I said was thrown away. It was weird. I wasn’t able to prove my case. No matter what I said, (Stein) knew what her ruling was going to be anyway.”
Similar concerns were also shared by Carlie Schindler in an interview Friday.
“I felt the entire process with Judge Stein, that the direction the case took, had very little to do with fact, evidence, or law, and everything to do with the counsel representing the parties,” Carlie Schindler said. “Tragically, I was on the wrong side.”
The Herald-Leader unsuccessfully sought comment from Osborne. Osborne is not listed as a lawyer on Britton Johnson PLLC’s website, even though a May 2016 court document noted she was with the firm. Britton Johnson PLLC’s Amy Johnson declined to comment.
Osborne contributed $900 to Stein’s campaign in 2014, as did several other attorneys.
Wolnitzek, of the Judicial Conduct Commission, said he was aware that Osborne was involved in two of the cases that got Stein suspended.
“I don’t know if there is a connection,” Wolnitzek said.
During the commission’s investigation into the Rai-Tonicia King v. Joian Adams case, it received a third complaint regarding Stein, Wolnitzek said. But that case is confidential.
“Stein ordered two minor children to be immediately placed in foster care without conducting a formal hearing, taking any sworn testimony, or affording the parents basic due process,” the King v. Adams agreed order stated.
Based on the findings from the confidential case and the King v. Adams case, Stein was suspended from March 20 to April 19.
Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso