In Miller v. Sam Houston State Univ., No. 19-20752 (5th Cir. Jan. 29, 2021), the panel holds that a district court judge’s behavior in a pair of cases fell so far below the standard of fundamental fairness that it had no choice but to reverse, remand and reassign the matters to a different judge.
The same lawyer represented a plaintiff in two employment discrimination cases assigned to the same judge. “From the outset of these suits, the district judge’s actions evinced a prejudgment of Miller’s claims.” The court immediately put a clamp on discovery: “The day after Miller filed suit, the district court issued an Order of Conference in each action that limited discovery. The (identical) orders foreclosed the parties from propounding written discovery or noticing depositions ‘without court approval.’”
Things snowballed from the first conference. “At the beginning of the Initial Case Management Conference, the judge dismissed sua sponte Miller’s claims against TSUS and UHS, countenancing no discussion regarding the dismissal.” The judge criticized the breadth of the plaintiff’s allegations, “lump[ing] Miller’s claims in with preconceived notions from previous cases involving professors” and referring to university faculty as habitually “litigious.”
“Later in the same conference, the judge responded to the parties opposition to consolidating Miller’s two cases by telling Miller’s counsel, ‘I will get credit for closing two cases when I crush you. . . . How will that look on your record?’” [Emphasis in original.]
“And things went downhill from there.” The court summarily dismissed two defendants, “denied Miller’s subsequent motion for reconsideration, [and] denied Miller’s repeated requests for leave to take discovery (including depositions of material witnesses).”
Remarkably, the district court judge insisted on attending and participating in the plaintiff’s deposition. At one point, he told the plaintiff that “[i]f you’re unhappy with the rulings I’ve made about discovery, that’s fine. Free Country. This is not a place to discuss your feelings.”
Only after the defendants filed summary judgment did the judge allow the plaintiff to depose a university witness, a dean, but only “for two hours, at most.” The judge denied a deposition of another key defense witness. Thereafter, the judge granted summary judgment on all claims.
The Fifth Circuit reverses. It notes several things wrong with the way the judge handled the case procedurally, starting with granting dismissals of two defendants without giving the plaintiff notice or an opportunity to respond. “It is also notable that the district court dismissed TSUS and UHS with prejudice, so Miller was likewise not given any opportunity to amend her complaint to cure the deficiencies that ostensibly warranted dismissal of the Systems.” Moreover, “it was not a ‘fair procedure,’ as required for a sua sponte dismissal, for the court to force Miller to resort to a motion to reconsider—as a proxy for arguments she might have made before dismissal—as her only avenue to oppose the dismissal of her claims.”
The panel also faults the denial of discovery. “To put it simply, the court’s discovery restrictions suffocated any chance for Miller fairly to present her claims …. Miller requested discovery on multiple occasions and was denied, almost instantly, at every turn: January 25, 2016 (denied same day); April 13, 2016 (denied April 14, 2016); May 4, 2016 (denied same day); May 12, 2016 (denied June 30, 2016); and June 2, 2017 (denied via summary judgment September 30, 2019).” The panel finds these seriatim orders an abuse of discretion.
Finally, the panel is constrained to reassign the case on remand. “[T]he cumulative weight of both prejudicial comments and peremptory rulings by the district judge leads us to conclude that ‘the original judge would reasonably be expected upon remand to have substantial difficulty in putting out of his mind … previously-expressed views … [and that] reassignment is advisable to preserve the appearance of justice[.]’”