MORE

Working for the Dade County Clerk's Office has its advantages, as long as you know how to keep your mouth shut and kneel when ordered. Otherwise, expect to be crushed

This is Tence Wolfe's story in its most succinct form:
A trusted employee of the Dade County Clerk's Office since 1989, Wolfe worked on the seventh floor of the Metro-Dade Justice Building, in the criminal courts division. Her job was fairly straightforward -- when attorneys filed documents in a criminal case, she made sure the paperwork got to the right files; and when a member of the public wanted to examine a particular case, she would help. In March 1993, she became a union shop steward for Local 1363 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents less than one-third of the 1375 workers in the clerk's office.

Unlike past shop stewards, who often approached the job with little enthusiasm, Wolfe felt honored to represent her co-workers, and was diligent in recruiting new members and vigilant in thwarting several attempts by her supervisors to violate terms of their employment contract. In response, she claims, her supervisors retaliated against her, harassed her with menial job assignments, and critically scrutinized the most minute details of her performance. "The county did not want to have an active union steward," Wolfe says, "and it became their goal to get rid of me."

Many of her fellow employees agreed with Wolfe's assessment. In fact, 61 of them signed a petition attesting to their belief she was being discriminated against because she had spoken up for their rights. But when she asked her own union to come to her defense, AFSCME officials refused. Instead, Wolfe contends, they decided to sacrifice her rather than cause more friction with county management. Wolfe also believes another factor contributed to the union's lack of support: Local 1363 president Leon Fuller was angry

with her because she had backed his opponent in recent elections.
In December of last year, Wolfe filed two complaints with the Public Employees Relations Commission in Tallahassee, the independent state agency responsible for resolving conflicts between government workers and management, as well as between employees and their unions. Wolfe's complaints were aimed at the county clerk's office and AFSCME Local 1363.

Less than three months later she was fired by the county.
That is the outline of Tence Wolfe's story. But it is a wholly inadequate rendition of the events of the past year, a chronology that could inspire romantic visions of the determined underdog, armed with nothing but the truth and an abiding faith in justice, prevailing against overwhelming odds. Stories like that can lift the human spirit and fill ordinary people with hope.

This, however, is not going to be one of those stories.
Tence Wolfe joined the clerk's office in 1989. She was a 45-year-old married mother, and hadn't worked in the five years since she left her job as a research librarian at a local bank. Now her son was in college, and the modest salary from her position at the clerk's office (starting pay was less than $18,000 per year) would help offset the cost of his schooling.

According to the annual evaluations in her personnel file, Wolfe was a valued employee. In May 1990, supervisor Vivian Rogers wrote, "Ms. Wolfe works effectively with co-workers, the public, other departmental persons, outside agencies, and immediate supervisor. She demonstrates excellent interpersonal skills when dealing with people. She is a team player and often suggests ideas for improvement. She is well-liked and respected by her co-workers. Ms. Wolfe accepts new assignments willingly and she readily accepts advice and counseling in a positive manner."

In May 1991, Rogers wrote, "She handles complicated situations very well. She has received commendations regarding her professional attitude and good service."

In May 1992, Bibiana Pavon, who had replaced Rogers as Wolfe's supervisor, again praised her: "Tence does an excellent job maintaining accuracy in her work product. She possesses a great deal of knowledge, which enables her to complete her work effectively. Tence demonstrates a good working relationship with her co-workers and superiors. When called upon for assistance, she's cooperative and polite at all times. Tence has proven to be a team player by working matters of concern within her area."

As a sign of the faith in her abilities, Wolfe's superiors selected her to represent the clerk's office in a recruitment booth at the Dade County Youth Fair. She was even lauded in the courthouse newsletter. "Meet Tence Wolfe," a 1991 article stated, "an asset to all that come in contact with her."

The principal criticism raised in all three yearly evaluations was the number of days Wolfe missed work because of illness. Initially, she explains, the absences were the result of arthritis, which began to flare up in 1989. Crippling pain in her knees and feet would leave her unable to walk and forced her to miss work for days at a time. And like many other Dade County residents, she also missed work after Hurricane Andrew destroyed her West Kendall home.  

Then, in the fall of 1992, she began regularly succumbing to bouts of the flu. "I would get these horrible upper-respiratory colds," she recalls. Finally doctors discovered the problem: Wolfe suffered from a hyperthyroid condition that made her susceptible to colds and influenza. She took an unpaid medical leave of absence from the county in December 1992, and when she returned to work at the end of January 1993, she says she was determined to stay healthy.

From February to mid-September, she missed only five days of work, and accumulated two months of perfect attendance. "I was really trying," Wolfe says. "I didn't enjoy being sick. I wanted to do my job." It was in this spirit of rededicating herself to the courthouse that she says she decided to become a union shop steward in March 1993. A few months earlier former county commissioner Harvey Ruvin had been elected county clerk, replacing Marshall Ader. Ruvin campaigned on a pledge to clean up the troubled agency, long known as a snake pit of political patronage.

"I remember encouraging everyone I knew to vote for Mr. Ruvin," Wolfe says. "We thought he was really going to make a difference, that he was going to make things better." Being a team player, Wolfe thought it was a good time to get involved. If Ruvin were going to improve conditions at the courthouse, he'd be working closely with employees, Wolfe thought. What better avenue for her than her union?

For two years Wolfe had been a member of AFSCME Local 1363 but had not participated in union affairs. On her application to become a shop steward, she wrote, "I have not been aware of an active steward in our division since my employment here three years ago. It is my impression that during this time some changes have been put into effect contrary to the spirit and letter of our contract. Because I have the best interest of the union and the county at heart, I feel I can be an effective steward." Wolfe won the appointment almost immediately.

Within days she had her first run-in with management. Employees at the courthouse have traditionally been granted an hour off on election days in order to vote, and on March 16, 1993, the public was being given the chance to select thirteen new county commissioners. But before supervisors on the courthouse's seventh floor would allow people to leave for the polls, they announced a new policy: Workers were required to return with a signed statement verifying they had indeed voted. "I had employees coming to me furious by this," Wolfe recalls. "The county had never asked for something like this before, and they sprung it on everyone on election day." Wolfe complained to her supervisors that the sudden change was unfair. She called in union officials, and by lunchtime the policy had been revoked. "People were coming up and congratulating me," Wolfe remembers. "They were saying, 'Way to go, Tence.' I don't think the supervisors appreciated that. I think it angered them."

Jacques Michel, who worked with Wolfe in the clerk's office from January 1990 to October 1993, says many of the employees were impressed by her tenacity. "Nobody used to go against management," Michel recounts, "but when Tence became steward, anytime management tried to do something to one of the employees, Tence would be there asking questions, wanting to know why. She was always there on the side of the employees. Before Tence, nobody knew who the shop steward was or what the union was for. But when Tence became steward, we knew for the first time we had a union."

Another employee, who still works at the clerk's office and requested anonymity, echoes Michel's comments: "I had never seen a union shop steward fight for me or anyone else the way I saw Tence fight for people. She knew what she was talking about and it was clear the supervisors didn't like that."

In another incident, managers in the criminal division attempted to introduce a new policy by which employees might not be allowed to take vacation time if they had used up too much of their annual sick leave. Once again the staff went ballistic. Wolfe worked for several weeks gathering information -- memos written by supervisors, statements from employees who had been denied vacation -- and forwarded it to local union officials. In April 1993, the union responded by filing a class-action grievance against the clerk's office.

From that point on, Wolfe says, her supervisors began watching her every move, relentlessly criticizing her. In the eyes of management, she claims, she suddenly went from model employee -- "a team player" -- to troublesome incompetent. She argues that Bibiana Pavon and her assistant, Yolanda Lobeck, systematically tried to undermine her confidence, her abilities, and her health. They would trail her around the office and make notes to themselves about Wolfe in a diary the supervisors carried, ominously known on the seventh floor as the "Red Book." Wolfe wasn't the only worker who ended up in the book, but it soon became obvious that following her successes as a union steward, she became a frequent target. Employees never were shown what was being written about them, and many felt the practice was simply an intimidation tactic. It proved particularly effective against Wolfe.  

Wolfe says she was regularly assigned more work than other employees, and then would be chastised for not completing it. One co-worker recalls that several of Wolfe's colleagues stayed after work -- on their own time -- to help her keep up with management's increasing demands. But after discovering the effort, the supervisors ordered them to stop. Wolfe also contends she was given new responsibilities without proper training. "Basically they were setting me up to fail," she says. By May 1993 the situation had grown so critical that 61 of Wolfe's fellow employees signed a petition to County Clerk Ruvin claiming she was being harassed because of her union activities. (The petition was delivered to Ruvin but he never responded to Wolfe.)

Her final employee evaluation, filed in July 1993, lacked the glowing tributes of earlier years. Her supervisor, Bibiana Pavon, wrote, "Ms. Wolfe continually questions directives given her by superiors." And while Pavon acknowledged that Wolfe got along well with her co-workers, and described her productivity as "above satisfactory when she is here," she also noted that Wolfe "has not been receptive to counseling and/or advice."

According to Wolfe, the continual harassment eventually caused her to become ill again. "They broke her spirit," says one colleague, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "They made her sick. Tence is a very intelligent person. She has a lot of guts to go through all of this. If they had started on me that way, I would have quit a long time ago. I couldn't have taken it."

Wolfe was unable to sleep. She was falling prey to the flu again. And by the fall of last year she was wracked with pain from her arthritis. Her doctor determined she needed an immediate leave of absence, which led to her staying home without pay from mid-October until early December. "I was feeling terrible," she recalls. "It wasn't like I took the time off to go out partying. Mostly I stayed in bed."

During that time, she made one critical mistake. Because she felt a sense of obligation to her union, she attended a meeting between Local 1363 officials and Leo Arnaiz, chief of the criminal courts division, concerning the class-action grievance over vacation time and sick leave. Having worked so hard earlier in the year to document the controversy, she wanted to be there when it was resolved. She called her doctor and asked for permission to attend the meeting; he gave his approval. When Arnaiz saw Wolfe, he reported her apparent transgression and she was promptly slapped with a three-day suspension, no pay.

In December, following her medical leave, Wolfe was given a complete physical by county doctors, who confirmed she was fit for work. But upon her return to the seventh floor of the criminal courthouse, she discovered her job responsibilities had changed. Now she was assigned to one of the most menial tasks possible -- "notices." She was told to take stacks of paper and place them in numerical order. Along with her arthritis, Wolfe also had been diagnosed as suffering carpal tunnel syndrome, and that the repetitive nature of this new task caused her extreme pain. (Wolfe had not mentioned the carpal tunnel affliction to her supervisors earlier because her previous duties had not aggravated the condition.) After several weeks, supervisors transferred her to another job -- clocking. She would take one legal document after another and insert it into a machine that would stamp the date and time on the front page. In some ways, she says, it was even more painful.

When she complained about this new task, her supervisors told her that before they would change her job assignment again, they needed a note from her doctor confirming she was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. She asked for permission to call the doctor so he could fax confirmation, but they refused to let her make the call. An employee who watched the drama unfold says it was frightening to see how the supervisors behaved. "It was amazing," the co-worker recalls. "They kept telling her she could not use the phone, even though other people make calls all the time. She was not even allowed to use the phone to call her husband when she was ill. She was not allowed to use the phone to call her doctor."  

Wolfe says she was put in the humiliating position of having to beg to make the call to her doctor. Finally her supervisors relented, and her physician, William Convey, faxed a letter verifying that Wolfe had been diagnosed with carpal tunnel and that repetitive work assignments would be painful. But when the fax arrived, the supervisors declared it wasn't valid because Dr. Convey had not signed it. Even though the note was written on the doctor's stationery, Wolfe was told to continue clocking in documents until a signed letter was received. It was delivered a short time later. "I became a nonperson," Wolfe sighs. "I believe they did this to me to show my co-workers what will happen if they defy management."

For months she had been complaining to union officials about her own treatment, but their attempts to help her, she says, were only halfhearted, a situation she attributes to her support earlier in the year of incumbent Local 1363 president Maggie Deshazor, who lost her re-election bid to Leon Fuller. (Fuller did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.) Other employees, however, attribute the union's lackluster defense of Wolfe to simple expediency. Historically, these employees say, AFSCME Local 1363 has been reluctant to tangle with management. Given that history, they offer this scenario: When it became clear that supervisors in the criminal division wanted to be rid of Tence Wolfe, the union decided it wasn't going to object, in the interest of long-term peace. "The problem for Tence was that she was very naive," says a current employee. "She trusted people and she believed that if she stood up for the union, the union would stand up for her. But she was wrong. The union isn't interested in standing up for the employees. It's more interested in getting along with the county."

Not long after her December return from medical leave, a frustrated Wolfe filed unfair-labor-practice charges with the Public Employees Relations Commission in Tallahassee A against the county for harassing her, and against the union for failing to defend her. Despite this bold initiative, Wolfe says that in truth she felt wrung out, completely exhausted from all the fights. "I made it clear to everybody I just wanted to go back and do my job," she says. "If they wanted me to stop being a union steward, fine. I just wanted them to stop harassing me."

In the belief that she had finally hit bottom, Wolfe resolved to put the worst behind her with the start of 1994. Yet the new year brought even more grief.

On January 16, 1994, 80-year-old Florence Stovall crawled from her bathroom to her telephone and dialed 911. She had fallen three days earlier, was knocked unconscious, and only slowly built up enough strength to reach the phone. When police and paramedics broke into her home in Alabama, they rushed her to the local hospital, where she slipped in and out of a coma. Later that day Wolfe received the call that her mother was dying.

It was a Sunday, and Wolfe quickly flew to her mother's side. On Monday her husband, Jerry Wolfe, called the clerk's office to let supervisor Bibiana Pavon know what was happening and that Tence didn't know when she would be back. He explained that Wolfe's mother could die at any moment. What followed was a week of letters and phone calls back and forth. According to both Jerry and Tence Wolfe, Pavon said the county required a formal letter from Tence asking for an unpaid leave of absence. Pavon also wanted a note from her mother's doctor confirming that the woman was dying. "I'm sitting there in her hospital room, watching my mother die," Wolfe recalls in disgust, "and they want me to write them all these letters and they want me to find a Federal Express outlet so I can send it to them overnight. They didn't have to put me through all of this. They singled me out. They were doing this to harass me. To me it was unconscionable and outrageous."

Wolfe is correct when she says her supervisors didn't have to put her through all the hassle, but they were within their rights to do so. According to Andrea Romisher, an employee benefits manager for the county, it was not unusual for Wolfe's supervisors to require a formal letter requesting leave, as well as a note from her mother's doctor. But Romisher adds that each department maintains discretion in deciding how strictly to enforce that policy.  

On January 29, Wolfe's mother died. The Alabama town had just been hit by a severe winter storm, and when Wolfe went from the hospital to her mother's house, she found it had been flooded. Jerry Wolfe informed Pavon that Tence would need a little more time -- to plan the funeral, to put her mother's affairs in order, and to take care of the household damage. According to Jerry Wolfe, Pavon passed along the message that Tence would need to request yet another unpaid leave of absence -- separate and distinct from the leave to care for her dying mother. County records indicate that Wolfe produced the letter and the leave was approved by division chief Leo Arnaiz.

Wolfe returned to work on February 22. There was no homecoming. Instead Arnaiz sent Wolfe a notice three days later requiring her to report on March 1 to Miami Beach's Mount Sinai Medical Center for a physical. Wolfe was told the physical was arranged so the county's own doctors could verify her claim of carpal tunnel syndrome. She reported to the hospital at the designated time, but when she arrived, she was informed that Arnaiz had demanded she submit to a complete physical exam. Wolfe was shocked. She had undergone a complete physical, conducted by county-hired doctors, less than three months earlier. Doing so again, she believed, especially when the stated purpose was to determine the presence of carpal tunnel, was a form of harassment, and perhaps illegal. She told hospital workers she would consent only to a limited physical regarding carpal tunnel.

Hospital staffers then called Arnaiz. He reiterated his demand that Wolfe undergo a complete physical. She refused and left the hospital. That afternoon Arnaiz placed Wolfe on paid administrative leave and ordered her to remain inside her house from 8:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. during the workweek. Two days later she was given written notice by Bibiana Pavon that she was going to face disciplinary action. On March 9, she was fired by Leo Arnaiz after an hour-long hearing. The official charge: insubordination.

Miami civil rights attorney Michael Lanham, whom Wolfe hired to represent her at the disciplinary proceeding before Arnaiz, thinks Wolfe was justified in refusing to consent to a complete physical; Dade County, he contends, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. "It is not insubordination for her to refuse to comply with an illegal order," he argues. "Carpal tunnel syndrome does not require a full physical. This physical was retaliatory; it was meant to subject her to further embarrassment and humiliation to get her to quit."

Lanham has filed a complaint on Wolfe's behalf with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC investigation is ongoing, Lanham says, and a ruling is expected soon. If investigators find reason to believe Wolfe's firing was unjust, Lanham says he will continue to represent her as the case moves forward. But therein lies yet another problem for Wolfe.

When she hired Lanham, she was desperate to find someone to help her at the March 9 disciplinary hearing, fearing (rightfully so, it turned out) that she was about to be fired. Wolfe now says she also believed Lanham would represent her before the state Public Employees Relations Commission, in conjunction with her complaints against the county and AFSCME Local 1363. Lanham, however, insists he made it clear to Wolfe that he lacked expertise in labor law and that he was unfamiliar with the state system. He says he told her she would have to hire a different attorney for those cases.

So in the wake of her firing, a shaken Wolfe set about finding a labor attorney. In the meantime, she was forced to write and file motions on her own in order to keep the cases alive. Initially a hearing officer dismissed her charges because they lacked specifics. But she filed several appeals and eventually was granted time to get her complaints in order.

Then, on April 18, Wolfe received word from California. Her older sister, Nena Kelley, had just collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack.

In the weeks that followed, Wolfe recalls, she stumbled around in a fog, lost and confused. And aside from the mental and emotional stresses, she faced daunting problems in her efforts to locate a lawyer. Some labor attorneys specialize in taking action against unions. Others specialize in going after employers. But few do both. The reason lies in self-interest: An attorney who defends management interests one week and union interests the next can be seen by the two camps as untrustworthy, as an adversary. So Wolfe's situation was problematic. She needed a competent lawyer willing to take on both Dade County and the AFSCME employees union, and she wasn't having any luck.  

But operating as best she could on her own, Wolfe somehow managed to persuade Public Employees Relations Commission officials that sufficient evidence existed to allow her cases to proceed to a hearing. Joey Rix, a Tallahassee attorney, was assigned by the state commission to act as the hearing officer; it would be his job to hear testimony, weigh the evidence, and then make a recommendation as to a remedy. The commission would then issue a final ruling, which could be appealed by the losing side to the state's district court of appeals.

Rix set the original hearing for this past August 3 and then postponed it to September 7. But that date proved inconvenient for the attorney who would represent the union, Ben Patterson. He told Rix he had purchased nonrefundable plane tickets to England. No problem, according to Rix. The hearing was pushed to September 27. In the meantime, Wolfe continued to scramble for legal representation. "I knew she had had appointments with four or five attorneys," lawyer Michael Lanham attests, "and they had all turned her down."

And then, just when she thought she would be engulfed in darkness, Wolfe glimpsed a hopeful beacon of light. She had been speaking regularly to Elizabeth Willis, a mediator and senior attorney for the Public Employees Relations Commission who had been assigned to Wolfe's case in hopes she could facilitate a settlement. Her role was different from that of hearing officer Joey Rix in that she wasn't interested in the merits of either side's arguments; she simply wanted to find a mutually acceptable solution short of a hearing. Willis had concentrated on Wolfe's charges against AFSCME, and asked what she wanted from the union. Wolfe responded that all she ever wanted was for the union to represent her at the upcoming hearing, to argue her case of alleged harassment.

A week before the September 27 hearing, Willis tracked down AFSCME attorney Ben Patterson in Tallahassee. "I pulled him out of a meeting," Willis recalls, "and I told him that all she wanted was to have the union represent her. And he said, 'Okay.' He said. 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, sounds good to me.'"

Willis called Wolfe with the good news: The union attorney had agreed to take up her complaint against the clerk's office. She also said the hearing would probably be postponed while Patterson prepared for the case. Wolfe should try to get a good night's sleep.

For the first time in months, Wolfe says, she slept soundly. In the morning, she canceled the upcoming appointments she had made to interview more attorneys. "I'm so relieved," she said that afternoon. "I think everything is going to be okay."

The next day Elizabeth Willis called again. She had just heard from union attorney Patterson. The deal was off. Wolfe was stunned.

Apparently Patterson, after his initial agreement with Willis, had checked with union officials at Local 1363, who rejected it. Patterson did not offer Willis any explanations, and he did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. But Willis blames herself. She should have made it clear to Wolfe, she says, that any agreement wouldn't be final until Patterson received approval from Local 1363 president Leon Fuller. "It's my fault that she misunderstood me," Willis concedes. "I was trying to get her to calm down and relax. She was crying all the time. Every day that week I was spending at least an hour a day on the phone with her."

Not only did Wolfe lose Patterson's help, she also lost two precious days in her search for another lawyer. She turned to her EEOC attorney, Michael Lanham -- again in desperation. Just days before the hearing, Lanham filed an emergency motion with the Public Employees Relations Commission, asking that Wolfe's hearing be postponed so she could obtain legal counsel. And in a subsequent telephone conversation with hearing officer Joey Rix, Lanham personally pleaded for an extension. "I explained that I didn't think it was fair that she go into this hearing without an attorney who knew labor law," he recalls. "She doesn't know the system. Let her get representation and let her get a fair shot."

But Rix was adamant, Lanham says. He wanted the case to proceed as scheduled. (Rix declined to answer any questions about the case, but in a written response to Lanham's motion for a postponement, he states that as the charging party, Wolfe should have been prepared for a hearing from the outset, and that she had had ample time to find an attorney.) According to Lanham, Rix said he was accustomed to overseeing cases in which employees represent themselves: "He assured me she would be given a fair chance." But Lanham remained skeptical. "Unless you have the expertise," he asserts, "you are going to get beat up."  

On Tuesday, September 27, on the 28th floor of Metro's downtown Government Center, in conference room B, the cases of Tence Wolfe versus Metro-Dade County and AFSCME Local 1363 were called to order. Joey Rix sat at the head of the table. Seated to his right was William Candella, an assistant county attorney who would be defending the clerk's office. Joining Candella was criminal courts division chief Leo Arnaiz. At the opposite end of the table, across from Rix, sat AFSCME attorney Ben Patterson, who was accompanied by Denise Daley, a local union official. Various county personnel staffers also crowded into the room.

To Rix's left, directly across from Candella and sitting alone, was Tence Wolfe. She had spent the previous 48 hours rushing to have subpoenas delivered to her prospective witnesses, many of whom were now outside in the hallway. As Rix began the hearing, Wolfe seemed lost in the stacks of documents she had brought with her; the papers were already in disarray on the table.

For her first witness Wolfe called her supervisor, Bibiana Pavon, who had barely sat down when Wolfe commenced her questioning. Rix interrupted to explain that the witness had to be sworn in before she could begin. "I've never done this before," Wolfe said with embarrassment. "I apologize."

Those words would become Wolfe's mantra over the next two days.
Although she had lived through the experiences she was now trying to extract as testimony from her witnesses, Wolfe never managed to grasp the lawyerly art of questioning. She lost her concentration, grew frustrated, appeared unable to get across her point -- even when interrogating herself. After one witness, Rix commented, "For the life of me I couldn't figure out how this testimony fits into these charges." Following a later witness, he said, "Again, for the life of me I can't see where you are going." At one point Wolfe's questioning was unusually inept, prompting union attorney Patterson to laugh out loud. Rix then noted, "Obviously you are not getting anywhere with this witness."

If Rix expressed befuddlement and Patterson amusement, Assistant County Attorney Candella was visibly annoyed with Wolfe. He made it clear he thought the protracted nature of the hearing was a waste of his time. Occasionally he would lean back in his chair and stare straight up at the ceiling. At other times he would rest his head on the table as if he were napping. Though perhaps childish and unprofessional, Candella's behavior did serve to fluster an already nervous Wolfe.

As lunchtime approached on that first day, hearing officer Joey Rix asked Wolfe if she had much more ground to cover. In response, she dived back into her stack of documents to see if she had missed anything. Rolling his eyes, Candella shook his head dismissively. "Yeah, where are we now," he said snidely, "somewhere near the French Revolution?" Wolfe was still searching through her papers and didn't hear Candella's remark. "I'm sorry, what did Mr. Candella say?" Wolfe asked. Rix told her not to worry about Candella's comment, that it was unimportant, and that the county attorney was simply responding to his question.

"I'm sorry," Wolfe offered, again embarrassed that she had apparently said the wrong thing.

After a few moments, Wolfe announced that she thought she was finished. Rix nodded his approval, recessed for a lunch break, and the room quickly cleared. Wolfe slowly reached for the cane she was forced to use because of her arthritis. She tried to stand but fell back into her chair. Her whole body trembled as she broke down in tears. "I'm really scared," she said, trying to catch her breath as her husband entered the room. "I'm afraid I'm messing up. I don't know what to do."

As the second day of the hearing began, Wolfe seemed physically exhausted. Rix had implored her the day before to be better organized for the day's witnesses, and initially she exhibited a measure of confidence, at least until she couldn't find her glasses. "I think I must have left them home," she shrugged as she searched through her handbag in vain.

While an annoyance for Candella, the hearing was hardly a test of his skills. For example, he was easily able to discredit the testimony of Wolfe's supportive witnesses by challenging their memory of dates. The alleged harassment began after Wolfe became a shop steward in March 1993. When witnesses testified to seeing some type of harassing behavior, Candella would ask if they remembered the specific date. Usually the witnesses would say no. "Could it have happened in January or February 1993?" Candella would then ask. And inevitably the witnesses would reply, "Maybe."  

With her case against the county floundering, and her case against the union scheduled to begin later in the day, hearing officer Rix asked Wolfe during a recess what she wanted from the union A assuming she won. Wolfe thought for a moment. All she had wanted, she said, was for the union to represent her against the county at this hearing. Rix said it was obviously too late for that now, so what else did she want? She thought again. Maybe they could put up a notice in the courthouse, she offered, saying they were wrong not to have represented her.

Rix stared at her. Wolfe fell silent once more. "What I really want," she told Rix in a voice so meek it was barely audible, "is not to have to pay attorney's fees to the union." He nodded and suggested that Wolfe and union attorney Patterson, who had been listening nearby, step into the hallway to see if they could reach a settlement. A few minutes later they returned. Wolfe agreed to dismiss her charges against the union and the union agreed not to ask for attorney's fees.

With one good laugh under his belt, and having otherwise not uttered a word during the two-day affair, Patterson packed up his briefcase and returned t Tallahassee, victorious.

Although the union attorney had departed, the president of Local 1363 was still waiting in the wings. Before Patterson's elevator had reached the ground floor of Government Center, Leon Fuller, the man who supposedly represents 4000 rank-and-file employees in various county departments, took the witness stand to testify on behalf of county administrators. "We have a pretty good relationship with the clerk's office," Fuller began. "We have a pretty good relationship with Mr. Arnaiz and his shop."

As Candella put another question to Fuller, Wolfe lost track of what was being said. She asked the assistant county attorney if he could repeat his question. Candella's face grew tight and he snapped, "No!" Wolfe sank back in her seat.

Fuller continued. He claimed that Wolfe was the only shop steward ever to complain of harassment, and that stewards usually are treated very well by management. "In a lot of cases," Fuller added, "they get a little bit more respect because of the position they hold." Fuller then described Wolfe as an "ineffectual shop steward" who eventually had to be replaced. "I did not believe she was properly representing the union view in the workplace," he concluded. (Fuller removed Wolfe as a shop steward on January 12 of this year, just two weeks after she filed her complaint against the union with the state Public Employees Relations Commission.)

Candella finished his case by calling Bibiana Pavon and then Leo Arnaiz. Both testified that Wolfe was never treated differently because she was a union steward. Any problems she may have had were the result of her not being diligent in her work. Arnaiz said he considered her to be one of the poorer employees at the clerk's office, ranking her near the bottom of the 270 people in his division. "I would have to characterize her as a problematic employee," Arnaiz stated. "It seemed to get progressively worse."

When Candella rested his case, Wolfe was given a chance to call rebuttal witnesses; she could even take the stand herself again. But she just shook her head and said she was through.

Earlier in the day, Candella had asked Rix to dismiss the complaint outright on the grounds that Wolfe had failed to present any credible evidence. Candella now renewed his request and demanded that Wolfe be required to pay the county's legal expenses. Rix said he would decide both matters in due time. (His ruling is expected within the next two weeks.)

With the hearing concluded, Rix rushed off to catch a flight back to Tallahassee; Candella scampered to his office down the hall. Alone again, Wolfe placed her papers in a box. "My day in court," she muttered.

The next day, September 29, Wolfe began suffering severe chest pains. She was admitted to Baptist Hospital, where she remained for four days while doctors ran a battery of tests before allowing her to go home.

Like the cause of her chest pains, the truth in Tence Wolfe's case would appear to be elusive. At the least, it wasn't revealed during the hearing. Her burden required her to demonstrate that she had been treated differently than other employees in her office, that she had been unfairly singled out and criticized. In addition, she needed to provide evidence that this treatment was the result of her activities as a union shop steward.  

The first step seemed obvious.
"Oh," Bibiana Pavon smiles, "you want to see my Red Books? My infamous Red Books?" Pavon opens a cabinet drawer next to her desk in room 701 of the Metro-Dade Justice Building and pulls out two fire-engine-red hardcover diaries, both stamped with gold numerals marking their respective years: 1993 and 1994. Each page in the six-by-nine-inch books represents a different workday. On those pages, the seventh-floor supervisors -- principally Pavon -- make notations about various staff members. The employees are not shown what the supervisors write, nor are they given a chance to dispute the accuracy of the supervisor's observations.

Assistant County Attorney William Candella had taken pains during the hearing to make sure the books themselves were never entered into evidence for Joey Rix to examine. And Wolfe was given photocopies of only a few pages; she never examined the books in their entirety. She hasn't even seen all the entries relating to her.

In June 1993, just prior to her annual evaluation, Wolfe says she first asked to see that year's book, anticipating that Pavon's notes would be used to justify a negative evaluation. "I was told by [Pavon] that those were her own personal notes," Wolfe recalls. "She told me I had no right to see them." Wolfe persisted, and after several weeks she was given photocopies of certain pages. "I don't know if they left anything out," she says. "They gave me what they wanted to show me."

For the next several months she made regular requests to review any new entries regarding her. By September, however, management's patience had worn thin, and Wolfe says supervisors refused to provide her with any more copies. "Since about the middle of September 1993, I have no idea what it is they've written about me," Wolfe complains. "I asked in writing on three or four occasions to see, and [Pavon] would either ignore my request completely or she would say she didn't have time to photocopy the pages. And I would say, 'Well, if you can find the time to write these things about me, you can find the time to copy them.' But she never did."

Indeed, it appears that no employee in the clerk's office has inspected the so-called Red Books, even though under Florida's open-records laws they must be made available to anyone who asks to see them. One current employee confesses that many workers believe a demand to examine the books would anger supervisors and lead to more negative entries.

Jacques Michel, who left the clerk's office last year, laughs uncomfortably even today at mention of the books. "You know, a bunch of us talked about stealing the Red Books to see what it was that they were writing in there," he recalls. "We decided against it, but that was how scared they made us feel.

"I'm from Haiti," Michel continues. "I understood better than anyone what they were doing with those books. It was a way for them to get control. To have control, you have to have people scared of you. You have to make people feel intimidated. When I was working there, I kept getting the feeling I was back in Haiti, working for some Haitian administration."

An examination of the books reveals that some of the more serious entries critical of Wolfe's job performance were written in pencil, erased, and then rewritten. Neither Bibiana Pavon nor criminal courts executive officer Joe McKinney would discuss why they were rewritten or when, nor would they answer any questions regarding Wolfe, citing her pending cases before the EEOC and the Public Employees Relations Commission. However, Wolfe claims that many of the entries criticizing her for mistakes are simply wrong. "Much of it is contrived and self-serving," she says, noting that the supervisors often described their own demeanor as polite while Wolfe was portrayed as antagonistic and verbally abusive.

The books, she believes, were not intended to be used as a method of helping her improve as an employee, but rather as a means by which her supervisors could record her every perceived flaw -- no matter how trivial -- in order to document supposedly poor performance and later to justify her firing. And though Wolfe was certainly not the only employee to appear in the books, and not the only one to be criticized, many of the entries regarding her appear to be unique in their pettiness. For example:

March 9, 1993: "I spoke to Tence regarding the shoes she was wearing. They were black and white flats with laces, not dress code." (Apparently Wolfe was the only person to violate dress codes in 1993 and 1994; no other employee was similarly criticized.)  

May 25, 1993: "Sophia indicated that while Tence was working at the county court counter yesterday, she called employees over to her work station and requested they sign a petition indicating that since she had become a union steward she was being singled out and harassed. I understand most employees at the counter, if not all, signed the petition. Tara indicated that she signed without reading. Willie had no knowledge if the statement was accurate, signed to make her happy." (The notation seems significant in that supervisors not only felt the need to document Wolfe's efforts to gain the support of her co-workers, but also apparently questioned employees in an attempt to discredit the petition. Jacques Michel, Wolfe's former colleague, remembers that supervisors were obsessed with the petition, and attempted to learn the names of the 61 people who signed it and where it was going to be sent. He dismisses the notion that employees didn't know what they were signing. "People signed the petition because they believed it," he contends, "not to make Tence happy.")

June 16, 1993: "At 4:10 p.m. I looked up and observed Tence at her window and on the phone. Twenty minutes later I looked up again and saw that she was on the phone. I approached her and advised her that she was on the phone for twenty minutes. She informed me that from 4:00 to 4:15 she was on her break and then she went to work. When I approached Tence, she was on the phone with her window closed conducting union business. I advised her that she could not take her break at her work station with her window closed and on the phone."

August 23, 1993: "Advised Tence that she could not wear knee highs if they were going to roll down and give the appearance that she was wearing socks -- Joe [McKinney] brought it to my attention a few days ago and Leo [Arnaiz] did the same today."

August 26, 1993: "I observed Tence during her lunch time typing at Sandy's desk. I observed her doing this from 2:30 to 3:00 p.m. once again during her lunch hour." (The words lunch hour were underlined twice for emphasis.)

August 31, 1993: "Tence went to lunch at 2:05 and was back by 3:00. She was ten minutes late from lunch. Yesterday 8-30-93 she was late five minutes from lunch, too."

September 1, 1993: "Tence went on her morning break at 11:10 and came back at 11:32. That means she took a 22-minute break instead of fifteen like she is supposed to."

September 23, 1993: "Tence called in at approximately 11:30 a.m., advised me would be unable to come in due to her illness -- questioned Tence regarding what was the problem. She responded, 'I cannot validate your question.' Would be in tomorrow with a doctor's note."

September 24, 1993: "I [Yolanda Lobeck] observed Tence sitting at her desk with her window opened talking on the phone from 12:00 to 12:10. She had the Yellow Pages of the phone book opened on top of her desk and I overheard a conversation related to getting a check to get her medicine, so it was a personal phone call."

September 27, 1993: "Tence closed her window at 2:05 p.m. At 2:07 I went to her desk and advised her she was not supposed to take her break at her work station. She replied, 'Yolanda, please do not harass me, I am filing charges against you.'" (One employee, Annabell Winnan, said during the hearing presided over by Joey Rix that supervisor Lobeck would sit and stare at Wolfe for extended periods of time. "I had never seen her watching anyone else this way," Winnan testified.)

January 3, 1994: "I observed Tence making a note on a small green index card."

January 7, 1994: "I observed Tence at the copier making notes on a white piece of paper. As soon as she reached her desk she walked over to my desk and handed me the piece of paper. Note: Tence was at the copier making copies -- work related. The memo that she handed me was not! Memo was written during working hours and immediately after a discussion with Yolanda." (Wolfe says the piece of paper she handed Pavon was a note telling her that she felt she was being harassed and that by scrutinizing her every move, Pavon and the other supervisors were exacerbating her medical condition.)

If you accept the notion that the Red Books support Wolfe's claim that she was being treated in a manner different from other employees, the second part of her burden at the hearing would have been to show why. Was it because of her union activities, as she alleges, or for some other reason? Hearing officer Rix acknowledged this may have been the most difficult issue to prove. "I don't know if a lot of these activities are because of personality problems or because of her union activities," he admitted at one point.  

Certainly Wolfe's erratic and emotional behavior during the hearing did not help her case. "I am not a competent attorney," Wolfe concedes. "But I was a competent court clerk and they took that away from me. This is not the way I usually am," she says, her eyes welling with tears again. "They made me this way. I used to be articulate. I used to be able to think clearly. Now all I do is cry."

While circumstantial in nature, the most damning evidence that the county was retaliating against Wolfe because of her union activity can be found in its own files. Between 1992 and 1993, Wolfe's employee evaluations took a dramatic turn for the worse -- suspiciously coinciding with her becoming a union steward. "I did not change," Wolfe argues. "My role changed."

Add to that the intensified scrutiny that began after she became a steward, and the fact that 61 co-workers signed their names to a petition asserting that her work on behalf of Local 1363 resulted in the harassment, and a strong case could be made. "A lot of people were hoping that she would win," says one colleague. "I'll tell you this, I know a lot of people didn't speak up during the hearing because they felt intimidated with Leo [Arnaiz] in there. We were told not to let that bother us, to speak the truth, but we all still had to work for Leo when this was over."

Former co-worker Jacques Michel adds, "Tence was really the first person to stand up to them. And then they got rid of her and now no one is willing to stand up to management any more. Everybody is afraid that if management gets mad at them, the same thing could happen to them."

Sitting in her dining room last month, Wolfe stared down at the table and shook her head. She has tried and tried to put in some meaningful perspective the events of the past year, but to little avail. "I was completely in over my head," she sighed. "I must have looked so foolish. I'm a nobody and I tried to do something. I must have been crazy."

Standing off to the side, her husband Jerry told her to stop beating herself up over the hearing. "It was a very proud moment," he said. "You were very courageous. At least you tried to do something. And they can't ever take that away from you.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >