Hilton Head judge vows to continue with lawsuit

info@islandpacket.comOctober 8, 2010 

Maureen Coffey says that for two years she has struggled at her job amid aspersions cast on her integrity as a Hilton Head Island municipal court judge.

And it appears her dispute with Sea Pines property owners and the plantation's private security force, which began in 2008, might go on for at least a while longer.

In November 2008, Coffey sued the property owners association, Community Services Associates, saying the plantation's security force and its chief had harassed and defamed her and her family since trying to solve a series of burglaries in 2004 and 2008.

Her case was dismissed Jan. 12 in the Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas in an agreement her former attorney, Thomas Holloway, reached with parties named in the suit. Court documents do not indicate why the suit was dismissed, and Coffey would not comment.

Coffey said she has since retained new legal counsel. She has three months to restore the case.

"It's been taxing having this hanging over my head," Coffey said Wednesday.

The dispute sprang from an investigation of Sea Pines burglaries in 2004 and has resulted in years of back-and-forth allegations.

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office first identified her adopted brother, Otis Coffey, as a suspect in 2004, according to CSA's response to Coffey's suit.

Sheriff's Capt. Toby McSwain informed Judge Coffey of that, and she replied that she would have her brother leave town, the response said. Shortly after that meeting, the burglaries stopped, according to the response. No charges were ever filed.

But the plantation faced a similar set of break-ins in February 2008, in which the "route of travel, target homes, times, dates and method of operation used by the burglar or burglars closely tracked those used in the 2004 robberies for which Coffey was named the primary suspect," according to the response.

CSA allegedly learned Otis Coffey had returned to live in Sea Pines in February 2008, which coincided with the increase in reported burglaries. No charges in those burglaries have been filed.

The Coffey family has lived in Sea Pines since 1980.

County court records show Otis Coffey pleaded guilty to counts of marijuana possession in 1988, 1990 and 1991.

He also faced four counts of burglary and three counts of larceny in 1992 for allegedly breaking into a Sea Pines homes with another man. Those charges were all dropped by prosecutors.

Judge Coffey contends Sea Pines security had no probable cause to consider her adopted brother a suspect in the burglaries. She claims the security force "began a pattern of harassing conduct designed to jail Otis Coffey and have (her) removed as the municipal judge as well as disbarred from the South Carolina Bar," according to her lawsuit.

The Sea Pines Community Services Associates lodged a judicial complaint against her in June 2008, but it was dismissed by the S.C. Supreme Court's Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which deemed it was without merit.

Likewise, CSA argued Coffey's lawsuit was without merit because S.C. Appellate Court Rules prohibit judges from filing civil lawsuits against people for lodging complaints against them.

Coffey said she believes she still has a right under the law to sue for defamation and damages she said she has incurred.

She claims Sea Pines security chief George Breed falsified police reports, told the Sheriff's Office Otis Coffey was responsible for crimes in Sea Pines and falsely reported she was covering up and interfering with the investigation of her brother.

Now, Coffey also takes issue with her own attorney: She said Holloway focused too much on CSA's complaint against her when he should have concentrated on alleged false statements made by Breed.

"It's more about defamation," she said. "There was just too much emphasis on the judicial complaint and the issues my brother has with Sea Pines, and not on the false allegations made about me that are grossly woeful, malicious and without basis."

Attempts to reach Holloway for comment were unsuccessful.

Coffey said Breed and CSA wrote to and spoke with Town of Hilton Head Island officials to discredit her.

"(Coffey's) health has been effected and the plaintiff has suffered and continues to suffer from acute nervousness ... and bodily pain," according to the suit.

Attorneys for CSA and Breed have said in court documents "the alleged actions were conducted in good faith, with no intention to inflict emotional distress" and argue there was probable cause. They also dispute Coffey's alleged injuries.

Attempts to reach Breed and his attorney for comment were unsuccessful.

Coffey remains on the bench and said it is important she continue her case against Sea Pines to rebuild the public's trust in an impartial judiciary.

Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded, she said, when false allegations are made about irresponsible or improper conduct by judges.

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