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Justice is best served by leaving a conflicting judge’s decision intact: 5th Circuit

(Reuters) – The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday that a federal judge in Louisiana made an “unfortunate mistake” in failing to back down in a 2015 civil rights case against Walmart Inc. The judge owned Walmart stock, the appeals court said, so there’s no doubt she had to step aside under the court’s denial rules.

However, the Court of Appeals also said that the plaintiff in this case was not entitled to reinstate claims dismissed by a conflicting trial judge — and not just because the judge’s underlying decision was well reasoned. The 5th Circuit Court believed that justice at large was best served by indicting now-retired trial judge Rebecca Doherty of Lafayette, Louisiana, for failing to step aside but leaving her verdict intact.

Public confidence in the system, Justices Patrick Higginbotham, Kyle Duncan and Kurt Engelhardt wrote in a per curiam opinion, would be more undermined by the retrial of the lawsuit — particularly because plaintiff Sloane Roberts did not appeal Walmart’s 2016 verdict has – than by letting the result stand.

That’s at least a questionable conclusion, based on my conversations with three legal ethics experts. Michael Frisch of the Georgetown University Legal Center emphasized plaintiff Roberts’ right to a decision by an impartial judge. “The admonition to future judges is cold comfort to her,” Frisch said via email. “Faith in the justice system weighs in favor of a litigant’s right to a conflict-free decision.”

But Arthur Hellman of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Bruce Green of Fordham University School of Law said the 5th Circuit appeared to have considered competing interests, including the consequences for the justice system if a case, correctly dismissed, is renegotiated.

“This is a case where everything points in the same direction — there’s no reason to reopen the judgment,” Hellman said.

The context of the 5th Federal Court ruling is important. Although Roberts’ attorney, Edward Moses of the Moses law firm, did not respond to my inquiry, Roberts appears to have learned about Doherty’s Walmart stock as a result of the Wall Street Journal’s bombshell reports of federal judges failing to ditch the to withdraw cases where you have a financial interest in a party.

Roberts, who claimed Walmart’s counterfeiting allegations led to her wrongful imprisonment for more than eight months, received notice from the federal court clerk in October 2021 about Doherty’s Walmart investment. That was years after Doherty dismissed her constitutional claims of late filing for failure to file a claim, but only weeks after the journal’s story broke.

The Journal eventually found that more than 150 federal judges failed to follow the stay-at-home orders in nearly 1,100 cases. According to the publication, courts in more than 800 cases informed the litigants that they could be entitled to a retrial of their cases.

Roberts apparently belonged to this group. She sought to overturn the dismissal of her lawsuit against Walmart and officers from two Louisiana police departments under Rule 60 of the Federal Code of Civil Procedure, arguing that Doherty did not have jurisdiction because she should have disqualified herself. (Rule 60 addresses the rare circumstances in which a party is entitled to relief from a final judgment as a result of newly discovered evidence, fraud in court or other factors.)

In a decision last January, US District Judge Robert Summerhays of Lafayette concluded that Roberts did not have any of the factors in the US Supreme Court’s 1988 Liljeberg v. Health Services Acquisition Corp. test. have fulfilled. Summerhays said Roberts could not prove Doherty’s failure to step aside was unfair to her or otherwise risked unfairness to the parties. And public confidence, Summerhays said, would be more likely to be damaged by the routine reversal of a well-founded opinion than by upholding Doherty’s judgment.

The 5th Circuit Court accepted Summerhays’ analysis without discussion, concluding only that the judge applied the Supreme Court’s test “skillfully and concisely.” In this respect, the appeal report can hardly be considered important or precedent.

But what’s significant, Hellman and Green said, is that the 5th Circuit decided to publicize an otherwise boring decision. This is where the context of the Wall Street Journal bombshell comes in: Green said he believes the appeals court released the opinion to send a message to all other litigants trying to reverse years of judgments against them based on the Recent Disclosures About Judges’ Stock Holdings: Don’t expect your case to be reinstated unless you can show that the judge at issue was biased or issued an unfair judgment.

Hellman was less explicit about the 5th Circuit Court’s motives, but said one way to read the court’s decision to release the opinion was as a warning against rule 60 requests based solely on a trial judge’s omission, due to reject share ownership.

“The court is considering costs for the system,” Hellman said.

Walmart appellate attorney Philip Fontenot of Davidson Meaux Sonnier & McElligott did not respond to my email inquiry.

Green told me that public confidence in the justice system probably wouldn’t have been undermined if the 5th Circuit had given Roberts another chance — but that doesn’t mean retrial would have been the right thing to do.

“It would serve very little public interest,” he said, “if there is no reason to believe that the trial judge’s decision was influenced.”

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Alison Frankel

Thomson Reuters

Alison Frankel has been a Reuters columnist covering major trade disputes since 2011. A graduate of Dartmouth College, she has been a New York journalist for more than three decades, covering the legal industry and the law. Before joining Reuters, she was a writer and editor at The American Lawyer. Frankel is the author of Double Eagle: The Epic Story of the World’s Most Valuable Coin.

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