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Third Circuit orders judge's recusal in civil litigation case

An appeal can be used to challenge a lower court judge's refusal to recuse himself from a case. The reported case involves a civil litigation matter regarding a claim of wrongful termination. The former CFO of a convention center sued the organization claiming that she was fired in retaliation for raising concerns about spending. This is a case filed in a federal district court in a neighboring state but in the same federal circuit as the New Jersey federal court.

The assigned trial judge turned out to have possible connections to the interests involved. The plaintiff asked the judge to recuse herself but she refused. In appeals of such matters, the case goes to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeal sought to have the judge removed and a new one assigned. 

The judge had determined that her volunteer service on the board of directors of an organization called the Avenue of the Arts, Inc., did not require recusal. The fired CFO argued on appeal that the AAI works closely with the Convention Center. In fact, the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, also a defendant in the lawsuit, provides the AAI with direct monetary contributions. This created at least the perception of partiality if not the reality of it, according to the appeal.

Another issue raised in the appeal is that the judge had already dismissed six counts of the complaint in response to a motion to dismiss by the Convention Center. The plaintiff petitioned the Third Circuit to assign the case to another judge and reverse the dismissal of the six counts. The Convention Center lawyers countered that recusal wasn't necessary because there was no appearance of partiality and because this was only a 'coincidental' connection that is not prohibited.

The Third Circuit panel ruled, in a case that applies to New Jersey as well as Pennsylvania, that although it found no evidence of actual bias, the judge's impartiality could be reasonably questioned in the civil litigation. Because of a sense of 'perceived partiality' recusal was the proper course. The Court sent the appeal back for reassignment to another judge and reversed the dismissal of the six counts.

Source: The Pennsylvania Record, "Third Circuit panel orders federal judge’s recusal in Pa. Convention Center suit, vacates dismissal of claims," Jon Campisi, Aug. 16, 2013

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