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NLV judge sues city over legal fees

North Las Vegas Municipal Court Judge Catherine Ramsey has opened a new front in her ongoing battle with the city, suing officials over their refusal to represent her in a 2011 lawsuit filed by an ex-employee.

The 2011 suit, brought by former Ramsey executive assistant Susan Forti, alleges the first-term judge wrongfully terminated Forti to make room on staff for her campaign manager.

Ramsey’s attorneys claim their client has sunk more than $27,000 into legal efforts to counter Forti’s claims, including some $12,000 charged to a city credit card in December.

The judge’s repeated threats to sue the city in an attempt to recoup those court costs became reality on June 25, with a legal complaint filed by Ramsey against the city and fellow Municipal Court Judge Sean Hoeffgen.

Ramsey, who claims she fired Forti in part on advice solicited from Hoeffgen, declined to comment on pending litigation.

Hoeffgen, too, declined comment on the case.

In court documents, Forti says she was publicly introduced as the judge’s new executive assistant at Ramsey’s campaign kickoff party. The longtime courtroom staffer was fired four months later, just weeks short of a state-funded retirement.

Forti has asked for a personal apology along with about $20,500 to settle her 3-year-old suit against the judge.

At this point, she’s not holding out much hope for a quiet end to the litigation.

Forti also said she was recently contacted by a group looking to recall Ramsey.

She declined to name the group, but said their efforts aren’t likely to translate to a quick out-of-court settlement.

“I can’t believe (Ramsey) hasn’t settled already,” Forti said Thursday. “She is not a saint, but all I know is I’ve told the truth about how it happened and I just want a reasonable outcome.”

ONGOING DISPUTES

The courtroom-bound spat over who should foot the bill for Ramsey’s legal fees is just the latest in a series of headline-grabbing clashes between the judge and city officials, several of whom have recently taken Ramsey to task over attorneys’ claims she has inappropriately dismissed criminal charges and waged a months-long “vendetta” against the city attorney’s office.

Ramsey has faced five formal complaints filed by current and former employees in her three years on the bench, including a pair of lawsuits working their way through the courts.

The city has declined to represent the judge in those cases, litigation it considers outside the “course and scope” of the city attorney’s duties.

Cash-strapped city officials have shelled out $53,000 to settle or investigate employees’ charges against Ramsey, which allege a pattern of “discriminatory,” “hostile” and “intimidating” conduct on the bench.

In May, officials accused the embattled judge of misappropriating public funds after records revealed she had charged thousands of dollars in legal fees to a city credit card.

Ramsey attorneys say in court documents that the judge was within her rights to bill attorneys fees to a city expense account, noting that the charges had been processed but never “assigned a line item” on the city’s balance sheet.

That argument, along with the judge’s decision to double down on her claim to a city-sponsored legal defense, doesn’t much worry City Attorney Sandra Douglass Morgan.

“I can tell you I was the one who made the decision that we shouldn’t pay for (Ramsey’s) fees in the first place,” Morgan said. “I wouldn’t have made that decision if I didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”

CITY WEIGHING ITS OPTIONS

North Las Vegas’ refusal to help fight Ramsey’s legal battles prompted a heated back-and-forth between Morgan and the judge’s attorneys in the weeks leading up to the legal complaint filed against the city late last month.

That suit alleges the city is obligated to “defend, indemnify and protect” Ramsey against any and all claims for damages allegedly suffered by former executive judicial assistant Forti.

The counterclaim goes on to allege that Judge Hoeffgen, Ramsey’s counterpart on the municipal court bench, could also be held liable for her legal fees.

Ramsey attorney Edgar Carranza did not return requests for comment on Hoeffgen’s inclusion in the filing.

Melanie Hill, the attorney representing Forti, said Hoeffgen’s appearance as a co-defendant can only help Forti’s case.

“We don’t think (Hoeffgen) had anything to do with it,” Hill said. “We think (Ramsey) had her mind made up.

“I am happy that events are panning out to vindicate my client. … The more she does to bring other people in is only going to help vindicate Susie.”

Hill said she wasn’t qualified to comment on her client’s claims that she had been contacted about an alleged Ramsey recall effort.

Neither the City Clerk nor the Clark County Elections Department were able to confirm an organized push to boot the judge out of office.

Meanwhile, the Review-Journal has learned that the judge could face a North Las Vegas-led investigation into as many as three complaints alleging she created a hostile work environment.

City spokesman Mitch Fox said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of internal complaints filed against Ramsey by current or former court staffers.

Mayor’s office Chief of Staff Ryann Juden, one in a handful of city officials to express misgivings over the judge’s clashes with ex-employees, said he wouldn’t be shocked to see such grievances on file with the city.

It remains unclear what consequences, if any, Ramsey could face as a result of such complaints.

Nevada law stipulates judges can only be removed through a voter-led recall. Complaints also can be made to the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct in office.

Juden said city leaders have already made strides in their attempts to ensure a less-than-hostile work environment for current court workers, including last month’s installation of cameras in Ramsey’s courtroom.

He said the city is currently “weighing its options” when it comes to handling any future questions surrounding the judge’s courtroom conduct.

“It’s no secret that we’ve had a lot of issues with Judge Ramsey,” Juden said. “It would be no surprise to me if human resources had its hands full with her, but the council is doing what it can to protect and assist employees.”

Contact James DeHaven atjdehaven@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3839. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesDeHaven.

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