White DeKalb judge wins $90,000 discrimination settlement

Former DeKalb County Magistrate Judge Tracy Dorfman.

Former DeKalb County Magistrate Judge Tracy Dorfman.

A white DeKalb judge who lost her job last year recently won a $90,000 settlement from the county after alleging the chief judge, who is black, discriminated against her because of her race.

Former Magistrate Judge Tracy Dorfman accused Chief Magistrate Judge Berryl Anderson of firing her so that Anderson could appoint more black judges to the court. The DeKalb Board of Commissioners voted 5-1 to approve the settlement on July 6.

Anderson gave no explanation for why Dorfman wasn’t reappointed to another four-year term at the end of 2016, according to a letter to Anderson from Dorfman’s attorney, Lee Parks.

Before Dorfman was let go, Anderson had told her she was “looking forward to four more” years on the bench, and Anderson had given her a hand-written “thank you” note for running the court’s criminal division, Parks wrote in his Dec. 14 letter, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Georgia Open Records Act.

But instead of retaining Dorfman, Anderson filled two positions with black judges who had less experience: Judge Curtis Miller and Judge Nora Polk, according to the letter.

“The inescapable conclusion is that Judges Miller and Polk were favored and selected over Judge Dorfman because they are African American,” Parks wrote in the letter seeking a $125,000 settlement. “We are aware of no other justification for why Judge Dorfman would be treated in such an ignominious manner despite her experience and efforts on the bench.”

Dorfman, who was paid $124,718 last year, had served as a DeKalb magistrate judge for 10 years, including six-and-a-half years working full-time. Magistrate judges are appointed by the chief judge, Anderson, who voters re-elected last year. Magistrate Court handles ordinance violations involving blighted property and animal control, as well as small claims, garnishments, weddings and warrants. Dorfman is now an attorney for Ross & Pines, a personal injury, immigration and criminal defense firm.

Neither Dorfman, Parks nor Anderson returned messages seeking comment for this article.

DeKalb County Chief Magistrate Judge Berryl Anderson.

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In response to Dorfman’s allegations, an attorney for the county government wrote that Anderson said Dorfman’s claims were unfounded.

“Judge Anderson does want you to know that race played no role in any decisions made regarding Ms. Dorfman,” wrote Terry Phillips, a supervising attorney for the county, in a Dec. 20 letter to Parks. “As such, no race discrimination occurred.”

DeKalb Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who made the motion to approve the payment to Dorfman, said she supported settling the case because both parties agreed it was fair.

“I can say, being a lawyer, that cases settle for many reasons,” Johnson said. “Knowing Judge Anderson for her fairness and integrity, I’m sure that she had good cause to do what she did, and she felt it was best for the case to be settled.”

Besides the fact that Dorfman wasn’t reappointed, she didn’t provide evidence of discrimination in the letter to the county.

But circumstantial evidence can be enough to win a settlement or lawsuit, said Larry Pankey, a Dunwoody employment discrimination attorney.

“Why would you jump the shark, so to speak, and go out and find someone else who just so happens to be your race?” asked Pankey, who isn’t involved in the case. “While you have absolute discretion of who you appoint, you don’t have discretion to discriminate.”

If Dorfman had filed a lawsuit and convinced a jury she was discriminated against, she could have potentially won a much larger amount, Pankey said.