Leslie Ann Celebrezze with Georgeanna “Georgia” Semary, pals on the shooting range in 2020
Cleveland, OH – Cuyahoga County Judge Leslie Ann Celebrezze engaged in unlawful retaliation, witness intimidation, and records tampering, among other civil-rights violations, against her long-time judicial assistant Georgeanna "Georgia" Semary to silence Semary and other potential witnesses about conflicts of interest from the judge’s alleged extramarital affair, according to a civil lawsuit filed today.
The suit alleges that Celebrezze, administrative judge of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Domestic Relations Division (“DR Court”), retaliated against her judicial assistant, Georgeanna “Georgia” Semary, and eventually forced her out of her job, because Semary was a witness to the married judge’s alleged affair with Mark Dottore—a receiver, the suit contends, Celebrezze regularly and unnecessarily appointed to cases.
A receiver is a supposed to be a disinterested person appointed by a court to protect or collect property that is the subject of claims or is otherwise being litigated. Court-appointed receivers take total control of parties' assets and have the authority to dispose of them. Receivers often charge lucrative fees for these services.
The suit also names other court employees—James Zak, Susan K. Sweeney, Justin Seeton, and Serpil Ergun—as defendants, accusing them of joining Celebrezze in her illegal retaliation against Semary after she provided public court records, as a required job responsibility, to a journalist who was investigating Celebreze’s and Dottore’s relationship.
The journalist later exposed details of the alleged relationship in an article published by The Marshall Project on June 1, 2023,
The Marshall Project reported that Celebrezze has steered hundreds of thousands of dollars of work to Dottore and his daughter, and that Celebrezze may be the only judge of the domestic-relations court to appoint such receivers.
Semary’s lawsuit alleges that after she gave the journalist the open, public court documents—which Ohio Supreme Court rules and the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment required her to provide—the retaliation from Judge Celebrezze and other court employees, working on her behalf, was swift, persistent, and devastating.
For 15 years, Semary had been a trusted judicial assistant to Judge Celebrezze, receiving perfect scores on performance evaluations, gushing praise from Celebrezze, and performance bonuses. The two women were also close friends and spent time together, even with their families, outside of work.
But, says Semary in her lawsuit, everything changed in April 2023, after she told Celebrezze that she had given the journalist access to the open court records.
Semary's complaint says that Celebrezze and other court staff engaged in a coordinated campaign of serial retaliation and intimidation against Semary that included professional humiliation and isolation, a demotion, a substantial pay cut that will slash Semary’s lifetime pension, and Semary's constructive discharge—in other words, being forced out of her job.
“Once the journalist came sniffing around, Celebrezze—blinded by anger and fearing the truth was about to come out—sought to discredit and silence Ms. Semary and send a chilling warning to all court employees to remain silent,” Semary’s suit alleges. “A primary purpose of this campaign was to try to discredit, intimidate, and retaliate against Ms. Semary as a witness and public servant, and to prevent corroborating details from emerging about Celebrezze’s [alleged] extramarital and unethical dalliance with Dottore."
"Celebrezze knew Ms. Semary knew too much about the affair. And she knew that, when Ms. Semary was identified as a witness, Celebrezze’s judicial—and possibly her legal—career would be over," the suit alleges.
The suit also alleges that other DR Court judges knew about the affair, Celebrezze’s steering of work to Dottore, and the retaliation. But they failed to try to stop these things. Indeed, the suit says, some helped Celebrezze try to cover it all up. The suit further alleges that Celebrezze schemed with Dottore and his private attorney to try to cover it all up.
“‘What happens in Miami stays in Miami!’”
The suit alleges regarding Semary’s knowledge of an affair between Celebrezze and Dottore:
- As early as 2011, Celebrezze told Semary that she liked Dottore romantically.
- Before Dottore’s divorce in 2018, Semary once was working when Celebrezze entered the office crying. Semary asked if she was okay, and Celebrezze told her that Dottore’s then-wife had caught her “making out” with Dottore outside of his office. Celebrezze told Semary that Dottore’s wife was upset and called the pair names.
- After Mark Dottore’s divorce, Semary would hear from her workstation in Celebrezze’s chambers as the judge would call Dottore when he was dating someone new and scream at him over the phone.
- Celebrezze would often invite Semary for smoke breaks, where she would complain about Dottore’s other girlfriends, exclaiming bitterly, “Fuck that bitch!” She would complain about how Dottore’s girlfriends would call while she was with Dottore. Celebrezze reported how she got one woman to stop calling when Celebrezze was with Dottore by stopping location sharing on a phone app.
- In about September 2021, Semary invited Celebrezze on a “girls’ trip” to Miami. Celebrezze said Dottore would try to join them for the weekend. On a smoking break, Celebrezze quipped to Semary about Dottore coming with her: “What happens in Miami stays in Miami!” But Celebrezze ultimately canceled because of a family medical emergency.
- In February 2022, Semary invited Celebrezze to her 50th birthday party on a Friday night. Dottore planned to attend the party to meet up with Celebrezze, but ultimately canceled, saying that having arrived back from travel, he was too tired to attend. In front of multiple witnesses, Celebrezze wept, upset that Dottore wasn't coming. Semary, trying to comfort her, told Celebrezze that Semary didn’t trust Dottore and she could do better. This upset Celebrezze.
- For a judge who was supposed to be neutral and detached, Celebrezze was inordinately protective of Dottore. Recently, when a divorce lawyer in court criticized Dottore’s actions as a Celebrezze-appointed receiver, Celebrezze stormed back into chambers and told her bailiff, “Get that motherfucker [the lawyer] out of my courtroom. How dare he talk to Mark that way!?”
- Celebrezze told Semary that when Celebrezze and Dottore were in a bar together, she jumped up in between Dottore and a man and got in the man’s face—almost getting into a fight with him. She had been worried about getting red wine on her white coat.
- Celebrezze has an Instagram account entitled @undertherobes on which she posts daily morning selfies at the top of her home stairs, in front of a full-length mirror dressed fashionably, in a model-like pose. Dottore, daily, would click on the “heart” button to express his love of these until The Marshall Project story broke about Celebrezze's relationship with Dottore. Celebrezze then turned the previously open account private, requiring requests for access.
Semary complies with the First Amendment.
The suit alleges regarding Semary’s performance of her constitutional obligations:
- On April 28, 2023, Marshall Project reporter Mark Puente visited the court clerk’s office and reviewed many closed Celebrezze case files for records about her lucrative appointments of Dottore and his daughter as receivers. The court’s clerks gave those files to Puente, and did not inspect them before handing them over for his review.
- Some of what Puente was seeking was in Celebrezze’s chambers. The clerks sent Puente upstairs to review that information. So Mr. Puente went to then-judicial-assistant Semary’s office.
- Semary, on the DR Court's behalf, was required by the First Amendment and Supreme Court of Ohio’s Rules of Superintendence 44–47 to permit access to public court records stored in Judge Celebrezze’s office. With Celebrezze’s full knowledge and consent, she had done so during her 15 years of service to court, usually in response to requests for lawyers or law-firm court runners.
- This is the same protocol staff in other DR Court chambers follow.
- Puente provided Semary with at least one case number. She pulled the relevant file and checked the contents to ensure the judge’s personal notes were not in it and that nothing was marked confidential. Her review was standard protocol when someone requested a case to review. She handed only open court records to Puente. Celebrezze had never objected to this approach.
- Puente asked Semary to make a copies of court filings related to Dottore—which she did, just as she would have done for anyone else.
- As he left, Puente handed her his business card and said he was working on several of Judge Celebrezze’s cases. He asked Semary to give the judge a message to have her call him. Semary took his card, and after he left took a photo of it and texted the photo to Celebrezze, with this message: “This guy stopped by the office asked if you can give him a call it’s about several of your cases he said” [sic].
- Celebrezze didn’t respond.
Court officials immediately raise alarm bells about Semary’s interaction with a reporter.
The suit further alleges:
- But within minutes of Semary’s text to Celebrezze, court administrator Defendant James Zak called and interrogated Semary. He demanded to know why Semary had allowed Puente to review the files.
- Zak seemed perturbed that Semary allowed Puente to obtain copies of the Dottore-related court filings, which were public court records. Semary told him that she wasn’t concerned when Puente asked to see the records because they were public.
- Semary repeatedly texted and even called Judge Celebrezze, who failed to respond. This was highly unusual.
Screenshots of Semary’s April 28, 2023 unanswered texts to Celebrezze.
- Devastated that her boss and dear friend wouldn’t speak to her, Semary spent much of the rest of the day crying.
- Semary was comforted by Celebrezze’s Magistrate Judge Scott Kitson, who told her—accurately—that if she had refused to give Puente the file, the reporter probably would have written a negative story about how the court was denying him access to public records to which he was entitled.
Defendants allegedly punish Semary for being a witness, and complying with the First Amendment to the Constitution and the Supreme Court of Ohio’s rules.
The suit further alleges:
- On May 1, 2023, Semary received an email from Defendant Susan K. Sweeney scheduling a meeting among Defendant Sweeney, Semary, and Defendant Zak for May 3, 2023. The email provided Semary with no notice about the meeting’s purpose, but Semary assumed it was about Puente’s request to view public records. She feared she would be fired.
- Celebrezze ignored Semary all day on May 1. This had never happened before. They were close.
- The next day, Semary noticed not just Celebrezze but other court employees ignoring or avoiding her. When Celebrezze was present, other staff wouldn’t speak with her and acted coldly.
- This devastated Semary, and she continued to cry on and off.
- Semary asked Celebrezze if she would be fired. Celebrezze shrugged and said nothing, leaving Semary in great distress.
- Semary then asked if the judge would just talk to her. The judge didn’t say a word and shook her head no.
- During the May 3 meeting, Defendant Zak asked Semary to explain what happened when Puente came to her office. Semary explained the day’s events. She reiterated that the records were public, and for 15 years, she has shared those types of records with the public.
- Defendant Zak gave Semary a “Written Counseling” document for providing public court records to a reporter. Although the document claimed Semary had shared confidential information with Puente, it conspicuously failed to specify anything confidential in the file Semary had provided to Puente, much less how Zak had arrived at such a bogus conclusion. Zak promised Semary the written counseling was the end of the matter.
- After the May 3, 2023 meeting, Defendant Susan K. Sweeney, complicit with the other Defendants, also created a false written document, purported notes. The notes claimed, among other false statements, that Semary had said, “not sure if anything taken” and “not sure if any confidential information.” In truth and in fact, Semary had clearly and unambiguously told Defendant Sweeney and the others in the meeting that Puente had taken nothing other than the copies she made for him and that Semary had personally inspected the file to ensure there was no confidential information in it.
- These falsified purported notes of the meeting also jumbled the chronology in which Semary had discussed topics with her blindsiding interlocutors. They couldn't have been written contemporaneously during the meeting.
Despite weeks of silence, the alleged retaliation and intimidation resumes as The Marshall Project nears its publication date.
And the suit alleges:
- On May 26, 2023—23 days after the written-counseling meeting—Defendant Seeton, the deputy court administrator, called Semary to his office. She was again given no notice about the purpose.
- When she went to Defendant Seeton’s office, Defendant Ergun, the director of judicial operations was there as well. Seeton and Ergun slid a piece of paper to her and told her she was being demoted to the position of scheduler, a position she had last held 14 years earlier with the Cleveland Municipal Court. Semary was shocked because Defendant Zak had assured her that the written counseling would be the full extent of the disciplinary action against her for providing public records to a journalist. Now she was being punished a second time for the same purported offense.
- Semary pleaded to know why she was being demoted, but neither Defendant Seeton nor Defendant Ergun said a word. They just sat there and looked at her.
- She asked again. They again said nothing, just staring at her.
- Semary asked whether her pay would be affected, and Seeton and Ergun said they could not answer; they added that would be up to Celebrezze.
The Marshall Project publishes an exposé about Celebrezze, intimating an alleged affair with receiver Mark Dottore.
The suit also alleges:
- At 5 pm that same day, The Marshall Project published “A Judge, a Kiss, and $450,000-plus in Court Work,” an investigative report about accusations that Judge Celebrezze was in an illicit relationship with Mark Dottore, a man she often appointed receiver. Mark Puente, A Judge, a Kiss, and $450,000-plus in Court Work, The Marshall Project, June 1, 2023, at https://www.themarshallproject.org/2023/06/01/divorce-judge-kiss-court-work. See also https://www.clevescene.com/news/a-judge-a-kiss-and-450000-plus-in-court-work-42091655 (simultaneous publishing of Puente’s article in Cleveland Scene Magazine); https://www.news5cleveland.com/news/the-marshall-project/a-judge-a-kiss-and-450-000-plus-in-court-work (June 2, 2023 republishing of Puente’s article on WEWS News 5’s website).
- The article detailed a Supreme Court of Ohio filing questioning the relationship between Defendant Celebrezze and Dottore, who had been appointed receiver in a divorce case. One of the parties in that case, Jason Jardine, filed an affidavit of disqualification, trying to remove Celebrezze from presiding over the case.
- Jardine hired a private investigator to investigate Celebrezze and Dottore’s relationship, according to the article.
- The investigator caught Celebrezze and Dottore kissing on the lips outside of Delmonico’s Steakhouse in Independence on March 22, 2023 and a video of the kiss was published to The Marshall Project’s and Cleveland Scene Magazine’s websites. In the video, Celebrezze turned toward Dottore as he leaned in. She seized and cupped his face tenderly and kissed him on the lips:
“I’m Italian.” – Judge Leslie Ann Celebrezze; “She kisses everybody. I kiss everybody.” –Mark Dottore (stillshot from surveillance video published in Marshall Project report)
The suit goes on to allege:
- The article reported: “Celebrezze and Dottore deny a romantic relationship. ‘I’m Italian,’ Celebrezze said in an emailed statement to The Marshall Project – Cleveland …, “and I frequently kiss my family and friends on the lips when I greet them or say goodbye.’”
- The Marshall Project also quoted Dottore as saying, in response to the private investigator’s video: “She kisses everybody. I kiss everybody.”
- Celebrezze’s and Dottore’s respective “I’m Italian” defense and “I kiss everybody” protests were lies calculated to cover up and perpetuate their amatory relationship even as Celebrezze presided over cases in which she funneled money to Dottore and his daughter.
- The report about the private investigator’s steakhouse-kiss stakeout reminded Semary of Celebrezze’s admission that Dottore’s wife had caught Celebrezze and Dottore making out outside of Dottore’s office.
- According to the article, Celebrezze and Dottore maintain a business relationship in which she has funneled to him almost half-a-million dollars of work as a receiver for her cases. As of the publication of The Marshall Project’s article, Dottore and his daughter were listed as receivers in eight of Celebrezze’s cases. And, according to the article, Dottore served as Celebrezze’s campaign treasurer when she ran for her judgeship in 2008 and her campaign headquarters is listed as Dottore’s business address.
- According to the article, a private investigator said he followed Celebrezze at least seven times to Dottore’s office, home, and to restaurants. The judge and receiver met three to four times each week.
- According to the article, Dottore claimed he met with Celebrezze at his home on Fridays to work on “court programs” and “‘special projects’” although there appeared to be no explanation for what sorts of “special projects” a court-appointed receiver and supposedly independent judge who appoints him could or should possibly be working on.
- Puente later reported that Celebrezze may be the only DR Court judge who regularly appoints receivers. Mark Puente, Cuyahoga Judge May Be the Only One Using Receivers, Costing Divorcing Couples Thousands, The Marshall Project, July 24, 2023, at https://www.themarshallproject.org/2023/07/24/cuyahoga-judge-receivers-divorce.
- Dottore has playfully slapped Celebrezze on the buttocks in front of others, calling her “his judge.” She has failed to disabuse him or others of the troublesome insinuation.
- Victims of Celebrezze’s scheme to appoint Dottore unnecessarily to bleed litigants’ assets contemplated and pursued litigation in which Semary would or could have been a witness. See, e.g., Mark Puente, New Bias Complaints Continue to Target Top Cuyahoga County Judge, The Marshall Project, June 15, 2023, at https://www.themarshallproject.org/2023/06/15/ohio-divorce-judge-conflict-allegation; Mark Puente, Judge Celebrezze Removed from Controversial Cuyahoga County Divorce Case, The Marshall Project, Aug. 22, 2023, at https://www.themarshallproject.org/2023/08/22/judge-celebrezze-removed-cuyahoga-divorce.
After news of Celebrezze’s alleged affair and unseemly business relationship breaks, the retaliation and intimidation against Semary escalates—leading to her constructive discharge.
The suit further alleges:
- On June 5, 2023, a few days after The Marshall Project’s article published, Semary received an email from Defendant Zak setting yet another meeting for June 7, two days later.
- Semary emailed Zak back asking to postpone the meeting so she could have an attorney present.
- Rather than reply, Zak tracked down Semary in a hallway and handed her an envelope. Inside was a letter informing her that her salary was cut by almost $20,000 a year. (Thus also slashing the pension she would have otherwise received after future raises.)
- The letter falsely stated that she had been told about the salary cut during the May 26, 2023 meeting with Seeton and Ergun. In truth and in fact, both had remained mum on why she was being demoted. And neither had been able tell her if her salary would be cut, saying that was up to Celebrezze.
- Since her demotion and pay cut, Semary continued to be persona non grata at the DR Court. People she considered friends no longer spoke to her and didn't call to ask how she’s been since the retaliation and intimidation started and she was demoted, with her pay (and thus her lifetime pension) slashed. Some people who would talk to her would suddenly stop if they saw Celebrezze nearby and say they couldn’t have Celebrezze see them talking to her.
- The retaliation, intimidation, and Defendants’ conduct have been widely discussed among the DR Court judges and court personnel.
- Other DR Court judges knew that Celebrezze was having an affair with Dottore. Celebrezze told at least one of them that she loved Dottore.
- Celebrezze never disclosed her affair with Dottore to any of the parties or attorneys before her where she appointed or contemplated appointing Dottore or his daughter as receivers. She knew that if she did, they would object to her handing over their assets to someone with whom the judge was having a romantic relationship and that she could not be objective in evaluating or approving the Dottores' bills.
- On information and belief, Celebrezze never disallowed Dottore’s bills on litigants’ assets.
- Defendants—including Celebrezze—knew that Semary had information as a witness that would publicly expose Celebrezze’s affair and relationship with Dottore and cast doubt on the objectivity and propriety of all Celebrezze’s judicial decisions to appoint Mark Dottore as a receiver on cases and approving his and his daughter’s fees and expenses. Defendants knew Semary's information would raise questions and prompt investigations about what personal benefits she may have received.
- Defendants—including Celebrezze—knew that if Semary wasn't silenced, not only was Celebrezze’s judicial office, but her law license, too, at risk.
- One measure of Semary’s status as a witness is that she has been interviewed about Celebrezze by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Cleveland-based public-corruption squad.
- Other government authorities would also be interested in what Semary knows about Celebrezze and Dottore’s relationship and in what happened to Semary as a result.
- Consistent with her retaliation and intimidation of Semary, and with her relationship with Dottore exposed and the object of scrutiny by litigants and their lawyers, Celebrezze schemed with Dottore and his longtime private attorney to try to cover it up. For example, when a divorce attorney, on May 2, 2023 sent an email and letter asking for a meeting with the DR Court’s other judges to discuss the threat to due process presented by Celebrezze’s conduct with Dottore, one of those judges forwarded the communication to Celebrezze. Celebrezze that night then even revealed to Dottore's attorney internal privileged communications with her own counsel.
- Dottore’s lawyer created at least two documents on Dottore’s behalf for Celebrezze to use to oppose Supreme Court of Ohio affidavits of disqualification arising from her conduct with Dottore.
- Defendants having created intolerable working conditions for Semary, she had no choice but to resign. She submitted her resignation on or about August 14, 2023, with her last day September 8, 2023.
Subodh Chandra, Semary’s lead counsel said, “Allegations of misuse of public office, including witness intimidation and retaliation, are distressing to those who care about public service. While Georgia Semary mourns the loss of her career and friendship, she knows she must hold Celebrezze and her enablers accountable. We will champion her cause with devotion because our mission is not just to seek justice for Ms. Semary, but to clean up the court.”
A call for information.
Chandra continued, “We urge anyone with information about the misconduct alleged in this complaint to contact us as soon as possible at DRCourtMisconduct@ChandraLaw.com or through the secure contact form on our website. Ms. Semary needs your help. And the public needs your help.”
The case is captioned Georgeanna M. Semary v. Leslie Ann Celebrezze, et al., Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CV-23984974. The complaint asserts claims under Ohio Revised Code § 2307.60 (civil liability for criminal acts) for witness and public-employee intimidation and retaliation, interference with civil and statutory rights, dereliction of duty, falsification, and tampering with records; along with a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The complaint, which goes into greater detail, can be found here.
The case is currently assigned to Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Andrew J. Santoli, but the appointment of a visiting judge may be expected because a judge of the Common Pleas Court has been sued.
The Supreme Court of Ohio's Chief Justice has already disqualified Celebrezze from continuing as a judge on the case for which the party hired a private investigator resulting in the first Marshall Project story.
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