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Sessoms v. The Trustees of Univ. of PA.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 23, 2017

ANDREA SESSOMS, Plaintiff,
v.
THE TRUSTEES of the UNIV. of PA., d/b/a THE UNIV. of PA. HEALTH SYS., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          GENE E.K. PRATTER United States District Judge

         After her employment in the human resources department at the University of Pennsylvania Health Systems was terminated, Andrea Sessoms sued the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania under various theories of employment discrimination. Her Complaint was filed on June 13, 2016 and promptly assigned to this Court's docket. Since the initiation of the litigation various procedural events have taken place, including an initial pretrial conference, a discovery dispute that was resolved in part during a telephone conference with the Court, and oral argument on a defense summary judgment motion. She has now filed a motion for recusal, reportedly after learning that the Court has taught classes at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, an institution also under the fiduciary umbrella of the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. For the reasons set forth herein and discussed at a hearing on the motion on May 22, 2017, during which counsel had an additional opportunity to argue on his client's behalf, the Court will deny the motion.

         Discussion

         Ms. Sessoms first contacted Chambers to raise the issue of the Court's Penn Law connection by telephone on May 15, 2017. By this point in the litigation, there had been a number of earlier opportunities for counsel to do so. Counsel was instructed to outline his concerns in writing. Counsel submitted a letter later that day, requesting a telephone conference. The Court declined the request for a phone conference. On May 19, 2017, Ms. Sessoms filed the pending motion for recusal, citing both 28 U.S.C. § 144 and 28 U.S.C. § 455. Under 28 U.S.C. § 144:

Whenever a party to any proceeding in a district court makes and files a timely and sufficient affidavit that the judge before whom the matter is pending has a personal bias or prejudice either against him or in favor of any adverse party, such judge shall proceed no further therein, but another judge shall be assigned to hear such proceeding.

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 455:

a) Any justice, judge, or magistrate judge of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
(b) He shall also disqualify himself in the following circumstances:
(1) Where he has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party, or personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding . . .
(4) He knows that he, individually or as a fiduciary, or his spouse or minor child residing in his household, has a financial interest in the subject matter in controversy or in a party to the proceeding, or any other interest that could be substantially affected by the outcome of the proceeding . . .

28 U.S.C. § 455(a), (b). The two statutes overlap, in that 28 U.S.C. § 455(b)(1) “entirely duplicate[s] the grounds of recusal set forth in § 144.” Liteky v. U.S., 510 U.S. 540, 548 (1994).

         Here, Ms. Sessoms argues that because the Court is an adjunct professor at Penn Law, the Defendant Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania is therefore the Court's employer, which in turn creates a “personal bias or prejudice” in favor of the Defendant. Ms. Sessoms cites to an order in Foundation for Worldwide International Student Exchange v. Doan, No. Civ. 2:12-02006 (E.D. Cal. Nov. 21, 2012), which quotes the Guide to Judiciary Policy, Compendium of Selected Ethics Advisory Opinions, § 3.4-3 as saying “[a] judge who teaches at a law school should recuse from all cases involving that educational institution as party.” That section says, in its entirety:

(a) A judge who teaches at a law school should recuse from all cases involving that educational institution as party. The judge should recuse (or remit) from cases involving the university, as well as those involving the law school, where the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned in view of the size and cohesiveness of the university, the degree of independence of the law school, the nature of the case, and related factors. Similar factors govern recusal of judges serving on a university ...

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