Tennessee Trial Court Judge Had No Duty to Recuse Himself Following Ex Parte Communication About Proposed Order in Health Care Liability Case

The right to a fair trial is one of the most important components of the American judiciary system. This is true regardless of whether one is the plaintiff or the defendant or whether the case is criminal or civil.

If a litigant believes that some impropriety has taken place that could prejudice his or her at trial later on, he or she may file a motion to recuse the trial court judge, as happened in a recent Tennessee wrongful death lawsuit. Of course, such a motion is not automatically granted, as the moving party must have valid reasons for the request.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case filed in the Circuit Court for Davidson County, the plaintiff was the surviving spouse of a man who allegedly died as a result of an act of medical negligence committed by the defendant health care provider. The plaintiff filed suit, both individually and as surviving spouse, seeking monetary compensation for the decedent’s death. The defendant filed a motion for partial summary judgment, which the trial court judge indicated that he was going to deny on the basis that there were disputes over material facts. The judge’s law clerk allegedly stopped the plaintiff’s counsel in the hallway after the hearing and asked him to submit an order denying the defendant’s motion.

The defendant then filed a motion to recuse the trial court judge, arguing that the trial court’s ex parte communication with the plaintiff’s attorney warranted a recusal of the judge. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, holding that the communication at issue was simply to ask that, as the prevailing party, the plaintiff’s attorney submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law for the court’s reference in preparing its order. The trial court also noted that there was no substantive, procedural, or tactical advantage gained by the plaintiff during the communication insomuch as it was the trial court judge’s intention to draft an order himself after the defendant’s counsel had been provided with a copy of the plaintiff’s proposed order and given an opportunity to respond.

The Court’s Decision

The Tennessee Court of Appeals first noted that, when entertaining an appeal based upon a motion to recuse a trial court judge, the appellate court may order the parties to file additional documents or it may adjudicate the appeal summarily, without an answer from other parties to the matter. After reviewing the defendant’s petition and supporting documents, the appellate court opted to act summarily and deny the defendant’s request to overturn the trial court judge’s denial of the motion to recuse.

Although the defendant urged the appellate court that the trial court judge should have been recused due to bias, prejudice, and/or impartiality, the appellate court disagreed. The mere fact that the trial court judge denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment (a decision that was not part of the appeal) did not prove bias or prejudice. The trial court judge did not deny that there had been an ex parte communication with the plaintiff’s counsel but characterized the communication as “for administrative purposes only.” In reviewing the record, the appeals court agreed with the lower tribunal that there were no facts in the record to mandate recusal.

Speak to an Experienced Tennessee Injury Attorney

Losing a loved one due to the negligence of a heath care provider can be one of life’s most devastating blows, leaving those left behind with great emotional pain and serious financial hardship. At the Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C., we help families who need to move forward following a loved one’s wrongful death by helping them assert their legal right to seek compensation in a court of law. For a free consultation in our east Tennessee offices, call us now at 865-524-5657.

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