Issue of judge impartiality arises after ex-employee is awarded multimillion-dollar verdict

Race discrimination, retaliation case overshadowed by accusations against trial judge

Issue of judge impartiality arises after ex-employee is awarded multimillion-dollar verdict

A plaintiff filed two lawsuits against his then employer, the Bassett Unified School District. The school district later raised the issue of whether the trial judge had been impartial. The California Court of Appeal said that she was.

In the first suit, the plaintiff alleged racial discrimination and other claims against his employer. The parties settled this case. The plaintiff then filed the second suit. This time, he claimed that the school district fired him in retaliation for bringing the first suit.

Read more: Tesla's motion to compel arbitration of workplace race discrimination claims partly granted

Judge Stephanie Bowick was in charge of the trial. One time, while she was on her way out of the courthouse, Judge Rupert Byrdsong told her that some attorneys from his former firm were involved in the case.

In Judge Bowick’s courtroom, Judge Byrdsong greeted the plaintiff’s counsel during a break in the proceedings. He later brought Judge Bowick food after exchanging messages with her judicial assistant. He sat in the audience to observe the jury selection. Judge Bowick asked her judicial assistant to pass a note telling him to leave. He did so.

Judge Bowick, changing her own previous decision, allowed the plaintiff to introduce evidence of specific allegations of racial discrimination from the first lawsuit. In the end, the jury issued a verdict awarding the plaintiff $24,584,449.

Judge Byrdsong sent Judge Bowick a text message stating “$25 Million!! [Confetti emoji], [confetti emoji].” Judge Bowick did not reply. Instead, she told the parties about the message and about Judge Byrdsong’s previous actions.

The case of Bassett Unified School District v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County arose when the ex-employer filed a motion seeking Judge Bowick’s disqualification. It argued that someone knowing the facts might reasonably have doubts about whether the judge was impartial. Judge Maria Hernandez denied the disqualification motion.

Judge not disqualified

The former employer asked for a review and again requested Judge Bowick’s disqualification. The California Court of Appeal for the Second District refused to disqualify the judge and awarded the plaintiff his costs in the proceeding.

An objective person would not reasonably question Judge Bowick’s impartiality because of Judge Byrdsong’s actions, the appellate court ruled. The timing of Judge Bowick’s disclosure also did not suggest an appearance of bias, the appellate court said.

Receiving a text message with emojis would not affect Judge Bowick’s ability to be fair and impartial or a reasonable person’s assessment of the situation, the appellate court held. Judge Bowick replied to the message in a way that complied with her ethical obligations, as a reasonable person would see it, the appellate court said. Specifically, she told Judge Byrdsong to stop contacting or communicating with her about the case and promptly disclosed the message to the parties.

The appellate court did not find Judge Byrdsong’s comment to Judge Bowick as they were leaving the courthouse inappropriate because there was no evidence that it affected Judge Bowick’s decision. Judge Bowick’s response to seeing Judge Byrdsong in her courtroom also did not suggest that there was any negative impact to her ability to remain impartial, the appellate court added.

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