Crystal Johnson, one of the candidates running for Lancaster County Probate Court judge, has told voters at three campaign stops that she was fired as an associate probate judge seven years ago after complaining that some cases were not being handled fast enough.
However, county records received Wednesday, June 8, by The Lancaster News through a Freedom of Information Act request show otherwise.
TLN filed the request after several citizens contacted the paper with questions about Johnson’s background.
The documents show that Johnson was terminated April 8, 2015, by former Lancaster County Probate Judge Sandra Estridge for an inability to work with others and other issues with the courthouse staff.
Johnson is trying to unseat incumbent Probate Court Judge Mary Rathel for the office in the Tuesday, June 14, Republican Party primary.
In January, Gov. Henry McMaster appointed Rathel to fill the unexpired term of former Probate Judge Dee Studebaker, who resigned after her family moved out of state.
Johnson and Rathel are both seeking the GOP nod in the Tuesday primary. There is no Democratic opposition in November.
Questions over firing
“I left the court because I was following the rules of the court, the judicial canon, when the judge was not signing orders in a timely manner,” Johnson said during an April 14 meeting of the Republican Party of Lancaster County.
While speaking to the Indian Land Republican Women on April 28 at Jim ’N Nick’s, Johnson said the same thing.
“I left because orders were not being properly filed by Probate Judge Sandy Estridge at that time. So, when I brought that to her attention, she fired me,” Johnson said.
Estridge served as the county’s probate judge for seven terms from 1996-2018.
Johnson made the same claim Wednesday night, June 8, during a speaking engagement at Sun City Carolina Lakes when she was questioned about being terminated.
Johnson said Wednesday that Estridge was “constantly out of the office” and was inconsistent in scheduling hearings or issuing orders in a timely manner.
“Her delays in scheduling hearings and issuing orders directly affected all parties involved,” Johnson said.
She claimed that at that time, the court was handling “a hotly contested adult guardianship and conservatorship of an elderly individual.” Johnson said attorneys informed Estridge numerous times by letter, emails, and calls that the elderly woman’s health was rapidly deteriorating in February 2015 and the case needed to be heard.
Johnson said Estridge scheduled the hearing in April and signed one of two orders in May, a month after Johnson was fired. Johnson did not provide specific dates in her comments to Sun City voters, but said the “lady died” two days after the first order was signed.
Johnson also said that when probate hearings were scheduled in December, it would be March of the next year before Estridge would sign the orders.
“To me, that’s a big problem, not what the judge should do,” Johnson said, adding that the orders should be filed expeditiously, as required by law.
In 2018, Johnson ran against former probate judge Dee Studebaker and lost.
She told The Lancaster News in an interview that year she was fired in 2015 after complaining to Estridge that some probate cases were not being handled expeditiously.
County records show that Johnson was hired as legal clerk in January 1990 by Estridge’s predecessor, former Probate Judge Reece Pate.
She was promoted from legal clerk to legal clerk II and then legal clerk III in the 1990s. Estridge promoted Johnson to deputy probate judge (associate judge) in August 2000.
County records show Johnson worked there until she was fired on April 8, 2015.
One of the FOIA documents requested by TLN was Johnson’s termination letter, which was written April 13, 2015.
Part of that letter — from Estridge to Johnson — reads as follows:
“The purpose of this letter is to formerly [sic] convey the County’s decision to terminate your employment effective April 8, 2015. The basis for this decision were concerns from the local legal community and other counsel outside of Lancaster County of an inability to work with you. There were also issues within the Courthouse staff.
“The Probate Court and the County felt it was in the best interest of all concerned to separate employment after lengthy discussions with the Lancaster County Attorney, Human Resources and other legal counsel.”
Despite what this document shows, Johnson still claims that she was fired because of her complaints about cases not being handled quickly.
“Mrs. Estridge was always out of the office and not getting things done in a timely manner,” Johnson said Friday morning, June 10. “She consistently made it difficult for attorneys to get hearings scheduled and to sign and return orders. Part of my job was to tell her that she needed to stay right here and do (her) job, and that right there was why she fired me.
“As far as the inability to work with attorneys, I was doing my job. I had to tell them what they weren’t filing and when they were delinquent and (what) still had to be filed; I had to remind them that this needs to be done,” she said. “These attorneys are responsible for what comes out of their office, so it’s easy for Sandy (Estridge) to say there was an inability to work with me. I was doing my job — informing them of what they need to do.”
Johnson claims that she was working in a “toxic” work environment.
“She (Sandy) put all that in there (in the termination letter),” Johnson said. “We could never have procedures laid out and we always had to write in our notes, ‘per SSE’ (Sandra S. Estridge). She really was in a way prohibiting us from doing our job because she wouldn’t make decisions.”
Last chance agreement
Johnson, in her remarks at Sun City, also denied that she was ever reprimanded while working in probate.
But a document obtained by the newspaper shows otherwise.
In October 2012, Johnson was given a last chance agreement for unprofessional behavior witnessed by Estridge at a S.C. Association of Probate Judges Conference.
Last chance agreements are agreements between an employer and an employee with serious misconduct, giving the employee one last chance to keep their job.
Johnson did admit that she was reprimanded in 2012 in a Friday morning conversation with TLN, but stated that “she was unable to review some of the incorrect statements in there.” Despite her saying that, the Last Chance Agreement was signed and dated by her on Oct. 25, 2012.
“Whatever is in there is not the whole story and you are never going to get the whole story from the correct point of view,” Johnson said. “I am not going to discuss it any further.”
“I have done everything I can to be professional and courteous and that has not been extended to me.”
Rathel declined to comment on the matter involving Johnson.
“I can’t really comment on it because it happened before I went to work there,” Rathel said.