Risk Update

Risk Roundup — ‘Ironic,’ Side-switching Conflicts Allegation, Judicial Recusal Rule Review and Continuing Concern

Litigation Trendspotter: Federal Judge Recusals Could Soon Be On the Rise—But Requesting Them Remains Risky” —

  • “A bipartisan push in Congress for greater transparency on federal judges’ financial ties, a proposed rule change for amicus filers and a vow by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. to ensure the judiciary’s compliance with ethics canons could soon combine to cause an uptick in recusals and disqualifications.”
  • “But, as demonstrated by one jurist’s reaction to recent allegations of a conflict of interest, lawyers who question a judge’s impartiality do so at their own risk.”
  • “The legislation is a direct response to the Wall Street Journal’s recent findings that, between 2010 and 2018, 131 federal judges failed to recuse from 685 cases in which they held a financial interest. The WSJ investigation itself has led to an increase in federal recusal motions and conflict-of-interest disclosures since its release in the fall.”
  • “The decision of whether to push for a judge’s recusal is often tactical. As Philadelphia-area criminal defense attorney Steven Fairlie told me a few years ago: ‘I could see a possible basis for recusal and keep my mouth shut because I think that judge is good for my case. I’d want to get my client’s approval. I don’t think you can do something like that without bringing your client into the loop.'”
  • “Conversely, a party and its attorneys may decide that pushing for recusal is worthwhile where a particular judge is considered to be less favorable to that party’s interests in the case. But recusal-motion-as-litigation-strategy can easily backfire if the motion is ultimately denied.”
  • “Judges are, of course, expected to remain impartial even when parties and/or attorneys get under their skin. But most litigators still go to great pains not to offend the judges they appear before—particularly when those appearances are frequent.”
  • “As James Sample, a constitutional law professor at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, noted in his 2007 paper, ‘Making Judicial Recusal More Rigorous,’ fear of reprisal is one of the chief deterrents of recusal motions. ‘…[L]itigants may be afraid of bringing recusal motions for fear of angering their judge. This fear may be particularly acute for parties and lawyers who are likely to be repeat players before the court,’ Sample wrote.”

School District Wants BB&K Disqualified From Cleanup Suit” —

  • “The school district that oversees the only school on an island off the coast of Los Angeles wants a California federal court to disqualify opposing counsel Best Best & Krieger LLP in a dispute over contamination on school property, arguing the district previously hired the firm for advice regarding the pollution.”
  • “The Long Beach Unified School District told the court in a motion to disqualify Tuesday that BB&K attorneys can’t represent the city of Avalon in the litigation over contamination at the Avalon School because the firm was previously retained as the school district’s sole environmental counsel for pollution at the site. The district told the court it only recently became aware of the apparent conflict and the law firm never requested, nor did the district sign off on, a conflict waiver that would have authorized the law firm ‘switching sides.'”
  • “According to the motion, the district’s counsel ‘ironically’ discovered the law firm’s previous work for the district while they were defending a claim for work product privilege over certain documents. The documents were communications between the district, its consultants, and counsel dating back to when the California Department of Toxic Substances Control issued an order regarding the pollution at the Avalon School site a decade ago. ‘This led the district’s counsel to discover that certain documents were privileged as a result of BB&K’s prior representation,’ the motion said.”
  • “The district told the court it asked BB&K to bow out of the lawsuit after it discovered the previous representation but the firm ‘refused to withdraw.'”