Metro

Suffolk Probate Court has ‘serious deficiencies’

Felix D. Arroyo, in an undated handout photo.
Felix D. Arroyo, in an undated handout photo.

Three weeks after suspending Register of Probate Felix D. Arroyo from his elected position with pay, a Massachusetts Trial Court spokeswoman said Friday that officials had found “serious deficiencies” at the Suffolk Probate and Family Court that were impeding the court’s ability to serve the public.

“The Trial Court found serious deficiencies in the operations of the registry sufficient to threaten the court’s ability to serve the public and the bar,” Jennifer Donahue said in a statement. She said Arroyo had been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation “to ensure that it meets the needs of those we serve in justice.”

Arroyo was suspended, with pay, two years into his six-year term. He makes $139,789 a year.

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Despite the court’s statement, the circumstances surrounding Arroyo’s ouster remain a mystery, while the investigation continues. Arroyo has hired a lawyer who recently demanded in writing that court officials publicly air all details about the investigation.

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“Since the investigation is of a public official that will result in the findings being released to the general public, Register Arroyo believes the entire process should be transparent and open to the public,” attorney Walter B. Prince wrote in a letter dated Feb. 10 to Massachusetts Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence.

Arroyo’s defenders declined to provide the letter of suspension Arroyo had received on Feb. 3, which Prince cited several times. That letter outlines the reasons for the suspension, Donahue said. While the Trial Court is barred by personnel concerns from releasing the letter, Arroyo could do so, she said. Arroyo’s attorney did not respond to a reporter’s calls, e-mail, or a visit to his office seeking the letter, and Arroyo’s spokesman refused to provide it.

Asked why he would not release it, spokesman Patrick Keaney, doubled down, blaming the Trial Court.

“Transparency is not the piecemeal release of selected documents,” he said. “Felix is calling for a completely public process where everything associated with this investigation is open and available.”

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The unexplained suspension of a public official has puzzled those who work in Probate Court, who say they are well-versed in the disorder of the office but uncertain what might have triggered the suspension.

“I would say, unless there is some exceptional reason to protect somebody’s privacy, the public ought to be told the reason for the suspension of a public official,” said Brian Bixby, a lawyer who regularly works in Suffolk Probate Court. “I think the public has a right to know.”

An unspecified suspension is not without precedence in the courts, however, including in Suffolk Probate Court.

Arroyo’s predecessor was suspended just three years ago, again, with very little information released publicly.

Back then, the rumor mill was churning and the dysfunction among the Probate Court staff was so obvious that most of those who worked with the office knew what was happening, Bixby said.

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The former register, Patricia Campatelli, had been accused of repeatedly punching a subordinate in the face after a holiday party at the end of 2013 and creating a climate of fear and discord within the office. Court officials refused to divulge details during their investigation, which ultimately failed to fault her for assault, but said she demonstrated “poor judgment” involving excessive drinking at a Christmas party.

That inquiry also cited her for many other in-office offenses, saying she worked only 15 hours a week at her $122,500-a-year job and spent much of that time taking “numerous smoking breaks, scratching lottery tickets, looking at East Boston real estate on the Internet, and filling out puzzles.”

She fought the suspension and lost reelection to Arroyo while still fighting the case.

Campatelli’s lawyers argued that as an elected official, she had to answer only to the voters. She insisted that she could not be disciplined by the Trial Court administrator, only by the Supreme Judicial Court. But the SJC ruled against her in a June 2014 unanimous opinion, finding that judges have the right and the “inherent judicial authority” to manage the courts.

Registers of probate have been removed in the past, but usually after lengthy investigations and court fights. In recent years, court officials formed a new committee on professional responsibility that could more swiftly pursue complaints about misconduct by court clerks or registers.

The SJC’s code of professional responsibility covers all manner of misconduct — from conviction of a crime to professional competence. It even notes the register should organize and manage the business of the office for “prompt and convenient dispatch of the business of the court.”

“Prompt” and “convenient” are words never uttered by the lawyers who work in the Suffolk Registry of Probate, who have characterized it as a place of casual disorganization, with long lines, hours-long waits, and case files that go missing.

Jim Hayes, a Probate Court lawyer for decades, described what he called a “general malaise” and a “patina of nonchalance” that hangs over Suffolk Probate Court staff, which court data show, has shrunk 33 percent over the past decade, from 49 people to 33.

Despite the workload, he said he often sees employees meandering aimlessly with files, chatting, or shutting down early. Filings come to a screeching halt for a half-hour every day at lunch, when the cashier goes on break and nobody else steps in to help, Hayes said.

As a result, legal cases get set back hours or days. A colleague squandered three hours waiting for a simple certificate, he said. Hayes had to wait three weeks for a legal citation that he could get almost automatically at Norfolk Probate Court, he said, and he felt lucky when he called in, that somebody was able to dig his file out of the pile and give it attention. “I could probably still be waiting if I didn’t call,” Hayes said.

While Arroyo’s spokesman said he inherited disorganization from his predecessor, some of those interviewed say they have seen no improvement under his leadership. “I couldn’t see any discernible difference in the terms of the service after he took over,” Hayes said.

In one aspect, customer service has been proactively worsened, lawyers said.

The Suffolk Probate Court office tried to change its method for lining up customers — funneling all visitors through a single door, and into one line, presumably for fairness and coordination’s sake. But the effect has been to eliminate counter service where forms could be quickly filed and to commingle those with quick questions and those with complicated ones.

“Somebody may have a legitimate need to sit down and speak with the assistant register. Somebody may just need a form that takes 5 minutes. But you all stand in the same line,” said Hayes.

One lawyer, who did not want to be identified, called it an “epic failure” that has only prolonged wait times further.

In Suffolk Probate Court, unlike other county courts, an overwhelming majority of people show up without a lawyer and struggle with unfamiliar paperwork, several attorneys said.

“I still think the major problem at Suffolk is the amount of ‘pro se’ litigants and the amount of attention they need and quite frankly that they get,” said Bixby.

“You’ll see little signs that say, ‘we can’t give you legal advice.’ Well, they do it all the time. That’s what takes a huge amount of time, and I and others have witnessed personnel there spending literally a half-hour to an hour helping somebody fill out papers.”

While the help is appreciated — especially by those who don’t speak English — the office could bring in more pro bono lawyers or law students to work with its regular “lawyer of the day,’’ the lawyers suggested.

Probate and family courts handle contentious personal matters — the disposition of estates, the dissolution of marriages, the termination of parental rights. The wait times in Probate Court are hard to explain to clients.

“When you’re charging your client by the hour,” Hayes said, “you can’t justify the time you spend up there.

Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.