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MS Coast judge accused of ‘outrageous’ sexual harassment of Ocean Springs attorney

Biloxi Sun Herald
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Chancery Judge Neil Harris sexually harassed an attorney, then “glared at” and “belittled” her in his courtroom rather than agree to step down from a case she was handling, says a lawsuit the attorney has filed.

Ocean Springs attorney Jennifer Sekul Harris, who is not related to the judge, is suing Neil Harris in Jackson County Circuit Court, alleging intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and defamation. She is seeking unspecified damages as compensation, plus punitive damages, attorney’s fees and court costs.

Judge Harris, who was served with the lawsuit over the weekend, told the Sun Herald by telephone Monday morning, “I deny each and every allegation.” He would not say anything further about the lawsuit.

“Harris’ conduct was so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency,” the lawsuit says, “and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community . . . “

Jennifer Harris indicates in court records that she filed a sexual harassment complaint against Harris with the state Judicial Performance Commission in December 2022, soon after Harris first harassed her. The complaint remains unresolved, she recently wrote in an affidavit.

Attorney Harris was in court Monday morning in Harrison County and unavailable to speak with the Sun Herald.

She said in her lawsuit, filed by Ocean Springs attorney David Krause, that she was “shocked” the first time Harris made “sexually suggestive” comments to her.

Chancery Court Judge Neil Harris is shown on the bench in this 2015 file photo. Harris, accused in a civil lawsuit of sexually harassing a Coast attorney, serves as a judge for Jackson, George and Greene counties.
Chancery Court Judge Neil Harris is shown on the bench in this 2015 file photo. Harris, accused in a civil lawsuit of sexually harassing a Coast attorney, serves as a judge for Jackson, George and Greene counties.

Sexual harassment allegations revealed

Harris was elected in November 2006 as a chancery judge for the 16th Circuit, which covers Jackson, George and Greene counties. Chancery judges handle disputes over equity; family law cases, including divorces and custody disputes; guardianships, sanity hearings; wills; challenges to the constitutionality of state laws and other matters.

Attorney Harris said she had her first uncomfortable encounter with the judge in December 2022, which she described in the lawsuit. She had been waiting two hours at the Jackson County courthouse in Pascagoula for another judge to return from court in George County so that she could get an emergency custody order signed.

She was finally told that Judge Harris was available and directed to the break room, which did not surprise her because he was known to hold off-the-record meetings in his office or the break room. A bailiff stood in the doorway of the small break room space, while Harris stood at the table in his black robe with his back to the wall.

He asked for her paperwork. And then the attorney said that the judge asked her, “Are you dating married men yet?”

“Excuse me?” she asked, thinking she had misheard.

She says he then asked again, in the same serious tone, if she was dating married men yet. Her lawsuit says that the judge was married and knew she was married. He even knew her husband, a police officer. She told the judge that her husband was the only married man she had dated in 30 years.

Judge Harris then remarked that “the Orange Beach condo is less than 150 miles away. Michelle wouldn’t be suspicious if Miss Harris and I went there for the weekend.”

“Michelle” is not identified but Harris is married to Vecie Michele Harris.

Attorney Harris said she quickly picked up her paperwork, left the break room and returned to her clients in the courtroom, where she was still reeling from shock.

“When she left the courthouse and walked to her vehicle,” her lawsuit says, “she (was) physically shaking, nauseous and mentally distressed to the point that she could not think about anything other than what had happened.”

When the court clerk of the judge who was in George County contacted her, attorney Harris started crying and told the clerk what had happened, her lawsuit says.

Judge’s harassment continues, lawsuit says

She attempted to handle the situation without a civil lawsuit, knowing Judge Harris has a “temper” and had “threatened many attorneys with jail for the slightest (perceived) offense . . . ,“ her lawsuit says.

Krause and attorney Harris are representing business clients together in a case before Harris. They filed a motion March 14, asking that he recuse himself. He has not ruled on the motion, which says that he has “refrained from hearing any cases” since August where Jennifer Harris is the attorney.

Her last previous encounter with Harris had been in March 2023, which she also described in the lawsuit. She was in the Chancery Clerk’s Office when Harris walked in. She “immediately became anxious and sick to her stomach upon seeing Chancellor Harris,” her lawsuit says.

He couldn’t help “inflicting additional embarrassment and emotional pain” on her, her lawsuit says, walking over to ask if she had heard any “good gossip” lately. By “good gossip,” he said, he meant, “You know, married lawyers sleeping around.”

She abruptly left the courthouse and was physically ill when she reached her vehicle, her lawsuit says.

When she faced Harris recently with the motion asking that he recuse himself in the business dispute, Harris glared at her, her lawsuit says. He refused to acknowledge the recusal motion, instead treating her contemptuously and “belittling” her in court.

She was so distressed, nauseated and anxious that she broke out in a rash, the lawsuit says.

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