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Accused of sexist comments, Pinellas judge steps back from eyebrow-raising Stetson case

A fired librarian sues the law school, but Stetson says she never told them about her past as a convicted felon. Meanwhile, the judge, accused of “sexist” and “derogatory” remarks to Stetson students, recuses himself.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas Minkoff  [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas Minkoff [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Feb. 14
Updated Feb. 15

ST. PETERSBURG — The court case between a former law library director and Stetson University College of Law may appear to be a simple dispute about lost wages.

But the ongoing legal battle includes a decades-old sex crime conviction involving a couple and a babysitter, and more recently, allegations that a Pinellas judge made inappropriate comments to law students.

The story begins in Palos Park, Ill., a suburb southwest of Chicago, in the fall of 1979. A 19-year-old woman said Rebecca Trammell, who at the time went by her married name Rebecca Fuller, and her then-husband sexually assaulted her in their home after she answered an ad seeking a babysitter.

It continues today in the form of a lawsuit filed by Trammell, who after her imprisonment on a charge of attempted deviate sexual assault, built a career as a successful law librarian.

Stetson fired her in 2018, saying she “affirmatively misrepresented” her background and “failed to disclose” her conviction. Now Trammell is seeking wages she said she would have earned during a promised sabbatical she never got the chance to take.

Until recently, that case was overseen by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thomas Minkoff, who was previously the target of a Stetson law complaint.

College officials said the judge made “derogatory and sexist” remarks about female students and attorneys and their appearance, though no specifics of those remarks were detailed in court documents. Minkoff has recused himself from the case.

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On July 2, 1981, after a four-week trial, a jury deliberated for six hours before convicting Trammell and her husband of attempted deviate sexual assault, according to newspaper clippings from the era. They were found not guilty of rape. A third charge of unlawful restraint was dropped before the trial, Trammell, now 75, said in a telephone interview this week with the Tampa Bay Times. Trammel denied she did anything wrong.

A law student with a masters degree in library sciences, Trammell was also a felon. She completed her studies at the University of Denver law school while free on bail after her conviction and during her appeal. She received her juris doctor, she said, before reporting to the Dwight Correction Center, a now-closed women’s prison in Illinois, for her seven-year sentence. She said she served about half before being released, plus a year of probation.

After her release, she worked in law school libraries, first at Northern Illinois University, then University of Nebraska, Barry University and University of Kentucky.

Along the way, she said, she informed prospective employers of her criminal history.

“Everybody knew,” she said.

Before Stetson hired her, Trammell said, she told then-law school Dean Darby Dickerson she had a “criminal conviction” in her past, though not specifically a felony. Dickerson didn’t inquire further, Trammell said, and Trammell signed paperwork acknowledging Stetson would run a background check. Stetson published a news release March 3, 2006 about its new hire.

Dickerson, now the law dean at University of Illinois at Chicago’s John Marshall Law School, did not respond to requests for comment made through her office.

Trammell worked at Stetson for 12 years, earning tenure, before a summer 2018 conference call with administrators. They said someone alerted them to her felony conviction. She recalled to them her conversation with Dickerson years prior, she said. On June 8, 2018, she said, Stetson fired her.

Stetson officials, including law school Dean Michèle Alexandre, did not respond to repeated requests for comment via phone and email.

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Judge Minkoff was appointed to the bench in 2009 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

Before that, he ran real estate development and home health care companies. He was also once a member of the Pinellas County Housing Authority, Gulfport city attorney and general council to the Pinellas GOP executive committee.

Last summer, the university alleged in court documents that Minkoff made “derogatory and sexist” remarks about Stetson students. Stetson investigated the students’ complaints and later reported the matter to the chief judge of the Sixth Judicial Circuit, Anthony Rondolino, who oversees Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Stetson requested repercussions, the university wrote in court records, and expressed concern to Rondolino that Stetson would be retaliated against for reporting Minkoff.

Minkoff did not comment on the allegations this week. Sixth Circuit spokesman Steve Thompson confirmed university officials contacted Rondolino and that “appropriate steps were taken," though he would not say what those steps were.

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The otherwise unrelated story lines collided in October when Trammell sued Stetson, as well as a provost and a former dean, over lost wages.

She said she was promised a sabbatical but was terminated before she had the opportunity to take it. She’s seeking the money she would have earned while away from work, which her attorney said in court records was $85,000.

Stetson wrote in court records that Trammell’s claim to the sabbatical money was cut off after Stetson learned about information “that would have served as basis for termination of employment for cause if Stetson had learned of the information earlier."

The provost, Noel Painter, and former dean, Christopher Pietruszkiewicz, who is now the president of the University of Evansville in Indiana, did not respond to requests for comment.

The case drew Minkoff as judge.

Stetson filed a motion this month to have Minkoff recused, saying they were fearful the university would not get a fair shake in his courtroom because officials had previously gone to the chief judge regarding the students’ complaints. Minkoff obliged, stepping back from the case Feb. 5.

“Our judicial rules prohibit me from commenting on the truthfulness of allegations made in a Disqualification Motion,” Minkoff wrote in an email response to the Times Friday.

The case now rests with Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Amy Williams.

Trammell told the Times this week: “I don’t like any of this. It’s turned my life upside down.”

Times senior news researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report.

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