On June 14, 2023, Topeka Capital-Journal reported that Terri Thurman, a former longtime clerk of the district court in southeast Kansas judicial court has filed a lawsuit against the state of Kansas, alleging a hostile work environment, verbal harassment, and retaliation by Labette County District Court Judge Fred Johnson. Thurman claims that she and two other female court employees, one of whom is her daughter, were subjected to verbal tirades by Judge Johnson for several years.
According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Thurman experienced distressing encounters with Judge Johnson that left her “in shock, crying, shaking, and sick to her stomach.” She alleges that the hostile work environment was based on her sex, as Johnson treated male employees with respect. One incident in 2019 involved Johnson screaming at Thurman, slamming his hands on the table, and hurling insults such as “Toxic, you are a problem, you need to go, you are evil, and disrespectful!”
Thurman also reported overhearing similar incidents involving another employee, Sabrina Overfield. Overfield recounted an interaction where Judge Johnson slammed his hand on his desk, yelled at her to sit down, and pointed aggressively at his chair. These incidents, along with others, caused Thurman to fear what Johnson might do next.
Despite briefly working from Oswego instead of the Parsons office where Thurman, her daughter, and Overfield worked, Johnson began excluding Thurman from court business. This exclusion continued even after Johnson moved back to working in Parsons. Thurman eventually felt compelled to resign in 2021 due to Johnson’s ongoing exclusion and unreasonable demands.
It is worth noting that similar allegations were made against Judge Johnson in a 2021 lawsuit brought by Sabrina Overfield. However, U.S. District Court Judge John Broomes dismissed the case in March, stating that Overfield could not establish discrimination based on sex or retaliation. Judge Broomes found that the incidents in question had explanations unrelated to the employees’ gender and that there was no evidence of gender-based comments from Johnson.
Overfield has since appealed the ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Terri Thurman further alleges that senior court staff in the 11th Judicial District, which covers Crawford, Cherokee, and Labette counties, were aware of Judge Johnson’s behavior but failed to take any action. Complaints filed by multiple women with the Kansas Commission on Judicial Conduct were dismissed, with the panel deeming the matter to be a personnel issue rather than a violation of the judicial code.
In her lawsuit, Thurman seeks $225,000 in damages, as well as attorney fees. The allegations against Judge Johnson shed light on the importance of addressing hostile work environments within the judicial system and holding individuals accountable for their actions.
Source: Topeka Capital-Journal