Metro

Severe dysfunction alleged in Suffolk Probate

Felix D. Arroyo in 2007.

George Rizer/Globe Staff

Felix D. Arroyo in 2007.

On any given day at the Suffolk Registry of Probate and Family Court, 20 to 30 files could go missing. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in unprocessed checks sat in boxes, stapled to filings, and stuffed in desk drawers. A section of the office designated for loose paperwork was overwhelmed by pleadings, orders, and judgments that numbered over 6,500.

“It was a place for employees to make work disappear,” according to an assessment of the registry released by the Massachusetts Trial Court. “There were thousands of pleadings dating as far back to 2015 not docketed or scanned. This procedural meltdown created chaos for not only litigants but the judicial staff as well.”

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This was the office run by Register Felix D. Arroyo, who was suspended with pay in February and has been aggressively fighting for his job. The assessment was part of a trove of documents court officials released to the media this week.

Arroyo had maintained that he was the victim of sabotage by entrenched white court employees who resented his efforts to diversify the staff. After he took office in early 2015, he hired several people with foreign language skills to serve the office frequented by non-English speakers.

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A spokesman for Arroyo said dysfunction in the registry was caused by “the racist attitudes and intentional sabotage on the part of some of the staff,” which created a hostile work environment.

The office has long been plagued with managerial trouble that predates Arroyo, who has maintained that he inherited much of the dysfunction.

The trial court conducted a lengthy investigation of allegations of a racially hostile work environment. Trial court officials would not allow material from that investigation to be made public.

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“Félix is looking forward to getting back to work to reform this office,” Arroyo’s spokesman said, adding, “Throughout his career, Félix has never backed down from a fight for social, economic, and racial justice and he’s not about to start now.”

The court did release documents that showed a fundamental breakdown in basic management. Employees took breaks at all times of the day and left for lunch when they wanted, the documents allege. Staff were allowed to come in late or leave early. People did not answer phones. Supervisors had signs on their closed doors that read “Do not Disturb.”

The registry, which has just 33 employees, handles filings that include divorces, wills, child custody cases, and other family matters.

Even in such a small office, the assessment found, “there existed obvious divisions, factions favoritism, and hostility.” There were numerous pending complaints of discrimination and inappropriate behavior, and some called the atmosphere in the office “toxic.”

Meanwhile, those employees lacked training and were not using correct filing codes.

“Due to the employees not having proper training, they were misinforming litigants, handing out incorrect paperwork, which ultimately translated into double the work load and an unhappy customer,” the assessment said.

Customers who came to the counter to file legal paperwork regularly waited for two hours.

The registry’s filing system had devolved into utter chaos by the time a temporary manager arrived Oct. 17, 2016. Fifty bins of files were scattered throughout the office. Another 60 bins of files were stacked on the floor, waiting to be put away. Other file bins were upside down, backward, or sideways. A subsequent “file room cleanout shined light on hundreds of cases that were misfiled,” including some that had been lost for years.

“The complete disarray and operational breakdown of the file room made basic registry functions unobtainable,” the assessment reads. “There was an average 20-30 cases missing on any given day.”

The report pointed in particular to the probate staff’s problems with processing paperwork and cashing checks. A divorce case that was filed in January 2016 was filed again in August; the paperwork had never been processed, the check never cashed.

Checks were found attached to petitions and complaints, all tucked into boxes of loose paperwork and unprocessed. “The file dates in the pleadings indicated that the vast amount of unprocessed checks were sitting around for months and in many instances for over a year,” the assessment found.

In little over two months, the temporary court manager brought in to run the office wrote that she alone processed checks worth over $241,000.

Arroyo’s spokesman defended his handling of the office’s finances. “The hidden files and misplaced checks are examples of the intentional sabotage carried out by some of the employees that Felix inherited or were placed in his office by the Trial Court,” he said.

The Trial Court suspended Arroyo Feb. 3, roughly two years into his term as register. He hired a lawyer and has argued that he inherited a dysfunctional office and that the court lacked the authority to suspend him as an elected official.

The office has long been plagued by mismanagement and scandal. In his 2014 election, Arroyo defeated Patricia Campatelli, who allegedly assaulted an employee after a holiday party. Campatelli never admitted any wrongdoing, arguing that she was a victim of unsubstantiated rumors.

An investigator found that Campatelli worked only 15 hours a week and spent much of it taking smoking breaks, playing scratch tickets, looking at East Boston real estate on the Internet, and doing puzzles.

The investigator determined that she had “created a fearful atmosphere “ in the office, retaliating against workers who questioned her long breaks and plotting to get rid of employees so she could hire her own people.

But the investigator could not sort out the facts behind Campatelli’s alleged Dec. 18, 2013, assault on an employee, noting that both had been drinking heavily at two bars before the incident.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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