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With stakes so high, she won't stop

By Pam Kelley and Gary L. Wright
pkelley@charlotteobserver.com, gwright@charlotteobserver.com

Lisa Pennington, a Charlotte child psychologist, took her ex-husband to court last year to get custody of her two young sons. She ended up losing almost all contact with them.

More than a year later, her case remains a conversation topic at Mecklenburg's courthouse - not so much because of the trial itself, but because of what happened afterward.

Since losing custody, Pennington has launched a campaign against Becky Tin, the Mecklenburg district judge who ruled against her.

Pennington and her sister have spent hours researching Tin's record, and they've broadcast allegations on their now-defunct website, "Judge Tin Exposed." They've also filed ethics complaints against four professionals involved in the case, including two complaints - now dismissed - against Tin.

Tin has been targeted in other ways, too. Last fall, a letter of mysterious origin that questioned her integrity was sent to hundreds of Charlotte lawyers and some of her neighbors. The letter included details from several cases, including Pennington's, though she and her sister deny any involvement.

Following these challenges, Tin recused herself from Pennington's case, saying she wasn't sure she could put aside the conduct when making future rulings.

Pennington says her relentless campaign is about exposing extreme decisions she believes smack of judicial bias.

She recalls how, on the evening she lost her children, Tin ordered her and her family to stay put in the courtroom and directed that Pennington's nanny drive her boys to their father's parents. As the boys sobbed, Pennington says, the exchange took place in the parking lot of a Charlotte pancake house.

It's been 18 months since then, and Pennington says she's seen her sons for only 17 hours, despite completing thousands of dollars in court-ordered therapy. To get more visitation, she's supposed to change her mind about allegations she made against her ex-husband. Yet she claims requirements in Tin's order are impossible to meet.

The custody battle, she says, has driven her to bankruptcy.

Tin can't talk about the case because it's on appeal. But Jonathan Feit, the lawyer who represents Pennington's ex-husband, sees Pennington's predicament very differently.

Tin took the boys from Pennington after ruling she had psychologically and emotionally damaged them. The judge ruled Pennington had caused damage when she "quizzed, coerced, pressured and directed" her sons to make serious false allegations against their father.

Feit says Pennington could now be seeing her boys in an unsupervised setting if she had complied with the judge's order instead of fighting it.

But Pennington has "undertaken a crusade to disparage and destroy every independent professional involved in this case," Feit says.

"She alone has the power to admit her misdeeds and work toward a reunification with her sons," Feit says. The boys, now in their father's care, are doing well, he says.

Generally, Tin says, her most important job in any case is to protect children, and if the facts warrant them, she will order strong measures to ensure their safety.

She calls Pennington's actions retaliation: "I wouldn't wish these vindictive attacks on my worst enemy."

Pennington, 40, says this isn't about retaliation. It's about two little boys who lost their mother, she says. "I don't want another child to experience what my kids have."

Long trial, tough ruling

When Pennington and her ex-husband divorced in 2006, they agreed to share custody. Back then, nothing suggested their break-up would end so badly.

But in 2007, Pennington filed for primary custody. She alleged, among other things, that her ex-husband wasn't properly giving one son his asthma medicine and wasn't adequately preparing the two boys for school.

Pennington and her ex-husband tried mediation. It failed. About two weeks later, in early 2008, she reported serious allegations to a pediatrician. A Department of Social Services investigation followed.

To protect the privacy of the boys, the Observer isn't providing details of the allegations or identifying the children or their father, who shares their last name.

In subsequent months, Pennington reported several more incidents that she said her sons disclosed to her following visits with their father, according to Tin's order.

But the DSS investigation didn't substantiate Pennington's allegations. And police concluded the allegations were unfounded, Tin's order says.

Instead, it was Pennington who DSS cited for neglect, finding that she had repeatedly discussed the allegations with her sons. During the trial, a DSS social worker testified that one of Pennington's sons said his mom and her boyfriend talked about the allegations all the time, "even after the judge told them not to talk about it."

The trial lasted 13 days. When it was over, Tin issued a tough ruling from the bench. She gave custody of the boys to their father and limited Pennington, at first, to supervised visitation with her children - if her therapist and their therapists deemed it appropriate.

In her order, Tin found inconsistencies in the testimony of Pennington and her boyfriend "that raise doubt about their truthfulness." She also concluded the boys' father never committed the acts he'd been accused of.

Tin's ruling did side with Pennington's claim that her ex-husband had shown lapses in the medical care he gave his boys, relying too much on holistic medicine. The judge gave the parents shared medical decision-making.

Tin also ordered Pennington to pay $266,657 for her ex-husband's attorney fees. He was represented by lawyers with James, McElroy & Diehl.

Pennington could get more visitation with the boys, Tin ruled, if she progressed in court-ordered therapy. Tin wrote that Pennington may have believed the allegations she was making. But if she ever wanted unsupervised time with her boys, the judge required an unusual condition: Pennington would have to show a "changed perspective," admitting that her ex-husband didn't commit the acts she alleged, and that her actions had harmed her boys.

Tin ruled she would use testimony from multiple people familiar with Pennington's behavior to decide if she changed her perspective. They would include therapists and her family members - as well as her ex-husband.

After the trial, Tin also forbade several of Pennington's family members from having contact with her boys.

That injunction came after the boys' father found Pennington's sister, Dr. Rhonda Patt, parked outside his house just before dismissal time of the boys' school, court documents show. Tin found the father had a reasonable fear that Pennington or one of her family members "may attempt to snatch the children."

Patt says she was only driving by the house with her young daughter to show the child where her cousins were living.

Pennington fights back

Pennington says she's a good mother being punished for believing what her children told her. She says she did not repeatedly question and coach her children about the allegations.

She's now supposed to pay her husband's attorney fees, child support and for therapy for herself and her sons, she says. She has also spent about $268,000 on her own legal fees, according to Tin's order.

Pennington believes she has proof that Tin's order is flawed. She filed ethics complaints against her sons' two therapists, and the licensing board recently agreed that Tin's order had created possible conflicts of interests by requiring the therapists to both treat and evaluate family members.

Pennington's complaints prompted the therapists to halt visitations - one reason she's seen so little of her sons.

Pennington has appealed Tin's order, citing errors and findings she says weren't supported by evidence. She fights on, with the help of her sister, Rhonda Patt. A Charlotte pediatrician, Patt is also an unpaid children's health columnist for the Observer and its website, momscharlotte.com.

Although their formal complaints of bias were dismissed, their allegations keep resurfacing - on websites, in a widely distributed letter, in e-mails.

Pennington says she created her "Judge Tin Exposed" site to publicize the problems she sees in Tin's rulings.

She and her sister also made comments about Tin in an online evaluation of N.C. judges meant for legal system professionals. "Judge Rebecca Tin should be in prison," Pennington wrote.

A letter mailed last fall to hundreds of N.C. lawyers included details of Pennington's case. The letter was purportedly from Charlotte lawyer Libby James, but James says she didn't write it - and court officials agreed after investigating. The FBI initially asked questions, but no charges were filed.

In October, shortly after that mailing, Tin recused herself from Pennington's case, though her custody ruling still stands.

Tin sees her departure as the most significant casualty of Pennington's campaign. She's committed to the children affected by her decisions, she says, but in this case, "I had no other viable option."

A judge from outside Mecklenburg has now taken over the case. Chief District Judge Lisa Bell requested the appointment of a visiting judge to avoid any more bias claims against Mecklenburg judges.

Pennington and Patt say their family had nothing to do with the letter, but they defend their campaign against Tin.

"There's nothing like a website or a complaint or anything like that, that can compare to what she's done to our family," Patt says. "Imagine how powerless we are."

'Sleepless nights'

Since she became a judge in 2002, Becky Tin, 50, has presided over some of Mecklenburg's most volatile divorce and custody cases.

When her rulings have been appealed, the state appeals court has generally affirmed them, finding errors only on narrow legal issues and several times ordering more details to back up her conclusions.

Tin left domestic court in June. She now handles criminal domestic violence cases, child support and other civil cases.

She knows some will assume her critics drove her out. In fact, she says, the opposite is true.

In early 2009, Tin says, she began planning to leave domestic court by year's end.

But as attacks mounted, she decided to stay six months longer, hoping to show such intimidation couldn't compromise the court's integrity.

Though Tin can't discuss Pennington's case, she revealed her mind-set in 2009, in the order she read from the bench at the end of the trial:

"I have spent many sleepless nights," she said, trying to figure out how to help the boys. "I can afford to make no error here today because their lives are in my hands."

She also foreshadowed the response her ruling would provoke:

"One side of this courtroom is going to be angry, defensive and defiant. I understand that, but I also encourage you to keep an open mind and listen to what I am saying, and maybe one day you will be able to accept the truth of this ruling."

Pennington still sees no truth in it. Her children have lost everything, she says, and so has she.

"I'm not stopping, and I'm not being quiet," she says, "until those two little boys are back in their bedrooms."

Gary L. Wright: 704 358-5052; Pam Kelley 704 358-5271. Staff researcher Maria David contributed.

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