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Jackson v. Rohm & Haas Co.

March 19, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pollak, J.


Plaintiff Mark Jackson has filed a "Motion to Vacate the Reference of the Instant Matter to Magistrate Judge M. Faith Angell" (Docket No. 196), seeking relief under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(4). Defendants have responded in opposition (Docket Nos. 201, 202). The motion is ripe for disposition.

I. Background

In 2007, plaintiff Mark Jackson had two separate lawsuits pending before me, one filed in 2005 and the other in 2006. The suits were related and both arose, in part, from an earlier 2003 federal lawsuit, dismissed by me in 2005. Magistrate Judge M. Faith Angell played a valued role in all these actions at different times. In September of 2007, I decided motions to dismiss in the two pending cases, and then ordered that both cases would be referred, with the consent of all parties, to Judge Angell under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

In May 2008, Judge Angell consolidated the two pending cases and set about the task of moving them forward, including (1) setting a date for Jackson to submit a consolidated amended complaint ("CAC"), and (2) outlining proposed discovery procedure. In June, Jackson submitted the CAC*fn1 as well as a motion to disqualify Harkins Cunningham, the law firm representing the Rohm & Haas defendants. All defendants filed motions to dismiss, and the Rohm & Haas defendants filed an opposition to the motion to disqualify. Judge Angell held a hearing on the disqualification issue in early August, denying the motion shortly thereafter.

In mid-September, Jackson filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to bar a merger between defendant Rohm & Haas and another corporation (not a named party) and to bar the purchase by defendant Liberty Life of yet another corporation (also not a named party). In a separate request by letter, Jackson asked that the court issue a "status quo" order to stop the merger and the acquisition activities from progressing pending decision on his injunction motion; Judge Angell denied that request. Judge Angell has issued a number of orders scheduling arguments on defendants' motions to dismiss and plaintiff's motion for an injunction as well as redefining when discovery would begin.

She also filed a report and recommendation, in November, advising that I deny Jackson's motion for a preliminary injunction. In short, in the months since Judge Angell's May 2008 consolidation order, this lawsuit has been active and contentious.*fn2

On October 16, 2008, Jackson filed this motion asking me to vacate the reference of the case to Judge Angell. He seeks to have the case removed from Judge Angell in its entirety for reasons enumerated below.*fn3

II. Analysis

A. The Procedural Propriety of the Motion

As a preliminary matter, defendants argue that Jackson's motion amounts to allegations of bias, and that such allegations must first be lodged with the magistrate judge as a motion for recusal under 28 U.S.C. § 455 - not as a motion to the district court judge to vacate the reference under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(4). They ask me to dismiss the motion as procedurally deficient, citing to cases like Doe v. Nat'l Bd. of Med. Exam'rs, No. Civ. A. 99-4532, 2001 WL 1003206, at * 3 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 14, 2001); and Clay v. Brown, Hopkins & Stambaugh, 892 F. Supp. 11, 13 (D.D.C. 1995).*fn4

While I agree with defendants' recitation of the operative procedure concerning allegations of bias, Jackson's charges extend beyond that realm. In his motion to vacate, and in lengthy objections to other orders of Judge Angell, Jackson implies, and also appears to state directly, that Judge Angell is deliberately obstructing his case and knowingly colluding with the defendants. The following are but a few examples of such allegations:

... the Court clearly has permitted improper external influences to invade the judicial process. At a minimum, the appearance of judicial bias is inescapable.

Motion to vacate at 14.

These actions cannot be reconciled with the Magistrate Judge's obligation to fairly and impartially determine the matters before her, and her own statements concerning moving the case forward, but rather reflect a clear pattern of conduct intended to protect defendants and to prejudice plaintiff.

Id. at 28.

[T]he present question is ... whether Judge Angell's actions have been intended to assist R&H and/or utilized by R&H officials to avoid the mandated reporting and disclosure requirements.

Amend. Obj. (Docket No. 216) at 12-13. These are deeply serious charges - charges not simply that Judge Angell is prejudiced against the plaintiff (charges that are disturbing enough in themselves), but that Judge Angell has taken steps designed to promote defendants' position and both disparage and materially disadvantage plaintiff's position.

In light of the gravity of the allegations leveled by Jackson against Judge Angell, I will review the motion under § 636(c)(4).*fn5

B. The Substance of the Motion

Jackson's motion stands on three broad propositions, each illustrated by more- specific allegations, that he contends create the kind of "extraordinary circumstances," 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(4), that would call for vacating the reference of a case to a magistrate judge: first, that Judge Angell has demonstrated "severe bias"*fn6 in favor of the defendants and against plaintiff; second, that Judge Angell has failed to follow her own orders; and third, that her decisions have improperly advantaged the defendants to the detriment of the plaintiff.*fn7 Pl. Motion at 4, 14, 17. In short, Jackson asserts that Judge Angell has shown egregious favoritism for big commercial concerns and disfavor for individual litigants, himself in particular. He asserts that she has indicated, through orders, that she will manage this litigation in particular ways, only to conduct herself subsequently in a fashion directly contrary to those orders. He finally asserts that Judge Angell's decisions and actions on a number of issues connected to this lawsuit have intentionally aided the defendants and obstructed Jackson's litigation process. The defendants respond, in summary, that Jackson has failed to demonstrate bias; that he is merely unhappy with Judge Angell's decisions; and that he should not be permitted to "judge shop."

Once the parties to a civil suit consent to a reference of their case to a magistrate judge under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), the district judge may only vacate that reference in one of two ways: sua sponte for good cause shown, or on motion of a party upon a showing of "extraordinary circumstances" by that party. 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(4) (quoted supra note 5). In seeking to compass the limits of "extraordinary circumstances," it is instructive to quote at length from an opinion of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia:

The legislative history of § 636(c)(4) suggests that the District Court's power to vacate a referral to a Magistrate Judge should be exercised only "where it is appropriate to have the trial before an article III judicial officer because of the extraordinary questions of law at issue and judicial decision making is likely to have wide precedential importance." 12 Charles A. Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Richard L. Marcus, Federal Practice & Procedure: Civil § 3071.3 (citing S.Rep. No. 74, 96th Cong., 1st Sess 14 (1979)). Circumstances warranting exercise of this power are described as "rare." Id. Although the legislative history sheds no light on the scope or application of the "good cause shown" and "extraordinary circumstances" standards, commentators assert that the authority provided for by § 636(c) was "certainly not meant to permit a party to argue that rulings by the magistrate judge warranted withdrawal of the case." Id. As a general rule, "[c]courts have not been receptive to the argument that extraordinary circumstances justified withdrawal of the case." Id.

Manion v. American Airlines, Inc., 251 F. Supp.2d 171, 173 (D.D.C. 2003). As directed by the statute, I will review Jackson's motion for a proper showing of extraordinary circumstances.

I will also consider, for the following reasons, whether I should vacate the reference mea sponte. First: if, without regard to whether a magistrate judge had been asked to recuse, I myself were persuaded that a magistrate judge was biased - let alone intentionally conducting the reference to favor one party and disfavor another - I would vacate the reference mea sponte, without waiting for a party to demonstrate "extraordinary circumstances," in order to ensure fairness and to protect the integrity of the judicial process. Second: in exercising my mea sponte responsibilities, I would be prepared to vacate a reference in any situation in which it had become apparent that the dynamics of the triangular interactions of counsel with each other and with the magistrate judge had deteriorated in a fashion detrimental to the expeditious movement of the litigation forward, notwithstanding that the magistrate judge had been entirely blameless.

1. Alleged Demonstrations of "Severe Bias"

I find on the record no basis for the plaintiff's charge that Judge Angell is biased against him and in favor of defendants. In reviewing this charge, I will address the utterances of Judge Angell to which plaintiff takes particular exceptions in his motion.

A. Jackson quotes language from an August 6, 2008 hearing before Judge Angell where she referred to some of the defendants as "large well known respected firms" (Aug. 6, 2008 Hearing Trans. at 30:12-13). Jackson then construes this as an announcement that

"if (in the Court's view) defendants are large, well-known, and/or respected, they are incapable of wrongdoing." Pl. Motion at 7. On its face, this statement does not suggest what Jackson asserts that it suggests. Further, the statement appears in a larger exchange between Judge Angell and plaintiff's counsel wherein Judge Angell observed, appropriately, that she could not understand how plaintiff's counsel could believe that the huge, complex, multi-faceted litigation he had been pursuing for years "will benefit your client who is the integral person in this process."*fn8 A lengthy excerpt from the hearing is helpful to the analysis here:*fn9

MR. SILVERBERG [plaintiff's counsel]: One last point which is that [law firm Harkins Cunningham is] a defendant and an enterprise under the racketeering statute. Once you are a defendant, and in this particular instance, a RICO enterprise, you have a self-interest.

Your interest is in vindicating yourself, and once you have an interest in vindicating yourself, how can you possibly be carrying out the responsibilities that you need to carry out on behalf of your clients when your self-interest is in vindicating yourself. I don't know. I think the answer is your [sic] can't, and before they were a defendant, they were still an enterprise.

They just became a defendant in the consolidated amended complaint. Again, they were a defendant once before, but they are -- they have been an enterprise in prior iterations of the complaint, before the ...

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