Monday, March 21, 2005
Ninth Circuit Panel Rejects Suit Against County, Former Superior Court Judge George Trammell
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The California Court of Appeal’s rejection of a suit by a woman who claimed that she was coerced into having repeated sex with the judge who placed her on probation bars a federal suit based on the same “primary right,” the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
In an unpublished memorandum, Senior Judge Stephen Trott and Judges Alex Kozinski and Richard Clifton upheld U.S. District Judge Manuel Real’s order dismissing the suit by Pifen Lo against Los Angeles County and former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George W. Trammell III.
Barring rehearing, or discretionary review by the U.S. Supreme Court, the ruling would put an end to the litigation arising out of the scandal that cost Trammell his job, his pension, and two years of his freedom after 26 years on the bench.
Lo, after four appellate decisions and a jury trial, has not prevailed against any defendant. She sued the state, the judge’s clerk and bailiff, as well as the county and Trammell in state court.
Trammell quit the bench abruptly in 1997, following disclosure of his involvement with Lo. Trammell had placed Lo on five years probation after pleading guilty to lesser charges in a case where her ex-husband and a babysitter were charged with kidnapping.
An Orange Superior Court judge later ruled that Trammel’s actions had tainted the case against the ex-husband and babysitter. Their convictions were thrown out on a writ of habeas corpus, and they were allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges.
Lo claimed she was coerced into sex with the judge. Trammell told her she had to “pay the price” if she wanted favorable treatment for her husband as the case continued after her plea, she said.
An Orange Superior Court jury found that there was no coercion. The state’s lawyer suggested after the trial that jurors may have believed “that the plaintiff and her ex-husband, Ming Jin, used the judge’s attraction for her to achieve something they needed for themselves.”
The claim against the county never reached the jury, because Div. One of this district’s Court of Appeal upheld the county’s position that it bore no liability because Trammell was not its employee, agent, or servant.
Orange Superior Court Judge David Brickner, who heard the case on assignment, also ruled that the county could not be held liable for negligent supervision, because judges cannot be “supervised” as a matter of law, but the Court of Appeal said there was no need to address that issue.
The Commission on Judicial Performance also found there was insufficient evidence Lo was coerced, but ruled that Trammell’s continued ex parte contacts with Lo violated judicial ethics. Trammell was censured and barred from performing court-appointed work.
He later admitted to related mail fraud charges in federal court and was sentenced to 27 months in prison, which he served at a facility in Beaumont, Texas. He also resigned from the State Bar rather than face disciplinary charges.
Trammell served on the Los Angeles Municipal Court from 1971 to 1988 and on the Superior Court from 1988 to 1997.
In suing the county, Lo’s attorneys agreed that under trial court unification, judges are exclusively state employees. But they argued that at the time of Trammell’s involvement with Lo, the county was a co-employer because it shared financial responsibility for the courts, conducted judicial elections, and was responsible for enacting ordinances governing some aspects of court operations.
The Court of Appeal, however, said the state was, at all relevant times, the primary employer of its judges. For another unit of government to be a co-employer of a state worker, the panel held, it must have control over the person’s official conduct.
The state surrendered no control over judges to the county, the justices said.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company