Hilton Head judge's defamation suit moves to trial

tbarton@islandpacket.comMay 19, 2012 

A Hilton Head Island municipal court judge who says she has struggled at her job after being maligned by a property owners association and its security force will soon get her day in court.

Judge Maureen Coffey accuses the Sea Pines property owners association, Community Services Associates, and its security chief of harassing and defaming her as they attempted to solve a series of burglaries in 2004 and 2008.

Her four-year legal battle is scheduled to resume the week of May 29 before 14th Circuit Court Judge Carmen T. Mullen.

Coffey's case was dismissed in 2010 in the Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas in an agreement her former attorney reached with defendants. But she has since retained new counsel and last year restored her complaint.

JUDGE, SECURITY AT ODDS

The dispute arose from an investigation of a series of burglaries in Sea Pines that began in 2004. Coffey's adopted brother, Otis Coffey, was a suspect.

The judge contends Sea Pines security had no probable cause to suspect her brother. She claims in her lawsuit that Sea Pines officials conspired to have her brother jailed and to remove her as municipal judge.

Specifically, she alleges Sea Pines security chief George Breed falsified reports and accusations by claiming that she covered up for her brother and interfered with the investigation. Coffey also claimed Breed and other CSA employees falsely accused her of having an affair with a Sea Pines security officer.

Breed, acting for CSA, lodged a judicial complaint against Coffey in June 2008; it was dismissed by the S.C. Supreme Court's Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

Coffey claims Breed shared the judicial complaint with town officials and the public.

In the complaint Breed alleges Coffey "is not able to be a neutral and detached arbiter" of cases involving Sea Pines. He also claims she engaged "in a pattern of reactive and overt actions" that undermined the criminal justice process, including "prejudicial" conduct that results in her inability to remain impartial.

Coffey is seeking damages for "shock, humiliation, distress, mental anguish, pain and suffering."

CSA argues Coffey's lawsuit should be tossed out because S.C. Appellate Court Rules prohibit judges from filing civil lawsuits against people for filing complaints against them. A state court ruling also bars public officials from claiming civil conspiracy based on comments regarding fitness to hold office.

Attorneys for CSA and Breed deny the claims and have said in court documents that statements about Coffey were made in good faith, not maliciously, as she argues.

ON THE BENCH BUT OFF SOME CASES

Coffey has recused herself from hearing Sea Pines cases. As a result, the Town of Hilton Head Island spent $5,400 from Feb. 1, 2009, to March 24, 2011, to have Bluffton municipal court Judge Fletcher Johnson preside over all Sea Pines cases.

After Johnson's death, the town began sending Sea Pines cases to a Beaufort County magistrate, who is not charging to hear them, according to the Hilton Head municipal court.

Since Coffey recused herself, 736 Sea Pines cases that ordinarily would have been handled in municipal court went to either Johnson or a county magistrate. That's about 3 percent of all cases the municipal court handled.

Assistant town manager Greg DeLoach said Coffey's recusals have not been much of a problem.

"The cases are being decided, processed, disposed of in the town's jurisdiction," according to DeLoach, who oversees the municipal court.

Coffey remains on the bench to hear other cases and has said it is important she continue her lawsuit, as public confidence in the judiciary is eroded when false allegations are made about improper conduct by judges.

Her new attorney, Robert Mathison, declined comment Friday.

Attempts to reach Coffey and Breed for comment were unsuccessful.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at Twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

Related Content:

Hilton Head judge vows to continue with lawsuit: Oct. 8, 2010

Sea Pines property owners association responds to Judge Coffey's lawsuit: Dec. 26, 2008

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