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Stevens v. Brigham Young University - Idaho

United States District Court, D. Idaho

August 7, 2018

LORI STEVENS, Plaintiff,
v.
BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY-IDAHO d/b/a/ BYU-Idaho, a Utah corporation, and SUSAN STOKES, personal representative of the Estate of Stephen Stokes, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

          DAVID C. NYE U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         BACKGROUND

         On July 13, 2018, the Court held a telephonic status conference to bring to the parties' attention a potential conflict of interest concerning Judge Nye's law clerks, Bennett Briggs and Jameson Rammell.[1] The Court informed the parties that, from the time this case was transferred to Judge Nye on August 2, 2017, the Court had taken appropriate steps to restrict Briggs' access to this case and to restrict Briggs' performance of official duties in this case. This was due to Briggs' familiarity with the decedent Stephen Stokes and his family, as well as Briggs' attendance years ago at BYU-I.[2] Judge Nye's other law clerk, Colleen Smith, has been involved in this case since the time the case was transferred to Judge Nye. Smith's term as a law clerk for Judge Nye expires on August 3, 2018. Rammell will begin his term as law clerk on that date. After Rammell was hired by Judge Nye, during a brief meeting when Judge Nye and Rammell were discussing pending cases and potential conflicts, the Court discovered that Rammell has an even closer connection to the parties and witnesses in this case than Briggs has. This connection includes the fact that Rammell's brother is a key witness in the litigation. All of this was disclosed by the Court in the telephonic status conference and the Court proffered five options that might resolve the conflict situation. The Court gave the attorneys time to discuss the situation with their clients and to submit written responses to Court's five proposed options. All parties have submitted written responses and/or objections and this matter is ripe for decision.

         DISCUSSION

         The decision whether to disqualify a judge can only be reversed for an abuse of discretion. Hamid v. Price Waterhouse, 51 F.3d 1411, 1413 (9th Cir. 1995); Thomassen v. United States, 835 F.2d 727, 732 (9th Cir. 1987). It is a decision that must be made by the sitting judge and cannot be referred to another judge. United States v. Sibla, 624 F.2d 864, 867-68 (9th Cir. 1980); Stoller v. Bank of N.Y. Mellon Trust Co., 2011 WL 4465337, *4 (D. Az. 2011) (unpublished).

         Cannon 3(C)(1) of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges states:

A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned, including but not limited to instances in which:
(a) the judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party, or personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding;
. . . .[3]

         The list in Canon 3(C)(1) is not meant to be exhaustive; however, it is also not meant to exclude a judge when a law clerk has a conflict of interest. This is clear because of Canon 3(F) of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees, which states:

         (1) A judicial employee should avoid conflicts of interest in the performance of official duties. A conflict of interest arises when a judicial employee knows that he . . . might be so personally or financially affected by the matter that a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would question the judicial employee's ability properly to perform official duties in an impartial manner.

         (2) Certain judicial employees, because of their relationship to a judge or the nature of their duties, are subject to the following additional restrictions:

(a) A staff attorney or law clerk should not perform any official duties in any matter with respect to which such staff attorney or law clerk knows that:
(i) he or she has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party, or personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts ...

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