IOWA CITY — Since her appointment to the bench last year, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose has sat in judgment of defendants. In an unusual trial scheduled to begin Monday, the tables will turn on the nation's youngest federal judge.
Jurors and a judge will hear allegations that Rose, 40, carried out a harsh and illegal campaign of employment retaliation against a subordinate, then-assistant U.S. Attorney Martha Fagg, when Rose was the top federal prosecutor in northern Iowa. Department of Justice lawyers will argue that Rose acted appropriately to supervise and discipline Fagg, whom they'll paint as a disrespectful employee with attendance problems.
Legal experts said it's extraordinary for a sitting federal judge to face a trial where her credibility and management style will be at issue. Equally noteworthy, they said, is that two other federal judges are expected to testify on behalf of Fagg — herself the daughter of a federal appeals court judge.
“Talk about intrigue on the federal bench in Iowa,” said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias. “Wow.”
Rose's lifetime appointment, approved last year by the U.S. Senate after Fagg filed the lawsuit, doesn't appear to be in jeopardy. But the trial at the federal courthouse in Sioux City could threaten the Des Moines-based judge's reputation.
The case revolves around personnel decisions Rose made while she was U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, a post in Cedar Rapids to which President Obama appointed her in 2009.
After her appointment, Rose soon removed the district's longtime civil division chief, Larry Kudej, 60, and replaced him with 35-year-old Teresa Baumann. Rose has testified that she believed Kudej was a bad manager — a claim disputed by some colleagues.
Fagg, 56, was upset about the removal of her boss, didn't believe Baumann had enough experience and was concerned about other rumored changes involving veteran employees. She wrote Rose a March 2010 memo warning the moves could invite age discrimination claims.
Fagg immediately became a target of a relentless retaliation campaign, her attorneys said.
“Rose took every opportunity she could to tighten the noose around Fagg's neck,” they wrote in one filing.
Though Fagg had received a positive performance evaluation weeks before writing the memo, Rose soon ordered her to be temporarily transferred from Sioux City to Cedar Rapids in what Rose called an attempt to better monitor her performance.
Fagg's attorney, Michael Carroll, said the transfer gave Fagg anxiety problems, depression and high blood pressure. When one of her doctors said she could not drive the 250 miles to Cedar Rapids because of medication, she was ordered to fly back and forth weekly.
Court records show Rose and Baumann closely scrutinized Fagg's work and past case files and used surveillance methods to keep track of her attendance. They cut her travel expenses for a business trip to Des Moines because they learned she had stopped briefly to drop off a dog as a favor for a co-worker. They reprimanded her, suspended her and ultimately made her move to Cedar Rapids permanent — over the objections of doctors.
Within days of reporting permanently to Cedar Rapids in January 2011, Fagg got into an argument with Baumann after she was removed from a multimillion-dollar fraud case. Rose and Baumann said Fagg made threatening remarks. They put her on leave and eventually fired her.
U.S. Senior Judge Richard Kopf will decide whether Fagg's superiors violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act by retaliating against her for conduct protected by the law. An eight-member jury will decide whether they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because by refusing to accommodate mental and physical impairments.
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