Friday, April 27, 2007
Judge Sohigian Rebuked by Commission on Judicial Performance
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Commission on Judicial Performance yesterday publicly admonished Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald Sohigian for abusing his authority to impose monetary and terminating sanctions and for treating an attorney in a “sarcastic and belittling manner” when the lawyer appeared before him.
Sohigian committed “a clear abuse of judicial authority” by following a practice, now discontinued, of issuing orders to show cause requiring plaintiffs who had not appeared at status conferences to appear at an OSC hearing, even though they were represented by counsel and had not been ordered to personally appear at the status conference, the commission said in a 6-2 decision.
While the hearings were held on days that the litigants were already scheduled to appear on other matters, the commission said, the litigants and their attorneys still had to bear the unfair burden of responding to them.
The jurist committed further violations by issuing OSCs to defendants who failed to give notice of status conferences, even though only plaintiffs are required to give such notice; by holding OSCs in abeyance for long periods of time before deciding whether to impose sanctions; and by routinely issuing OSCs that threatened to dismiss cases or bar defenses, rather than impose lesser sanctions, for failure to comply with procedures governing the initial status conference, even though there was no reason to believe that lesser sanctions would be ineffective, the commission found.
Formal Proceedings Waived
Orange Superior Court Judge Frederick Horn authored the decision, which was joined by Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Judith McConnell, Los Angeles attorney Michael A. Kahn, and public members Patricia Miller, Jose Miramontes, and Barbara Schraeger. Santa Monica attorney Marshall Grossman was recused, and San Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein joined public member Lawrence Simi in voting for private admonishment.
The commission revealed in its decision, which was the first public announcement of the proceedings, that Sohigian had exercised his right under commission rules to waive formal proceedings and contest the proposed discipline in closed session, which took place March 29. Sohigian and his attorney, Edward P. George Jr. of Long Beach, contended that only private discipline should be imposed, in part because the judge had already recognized that the objected-to practices were improper.
The commission, however, found that the judge was seeking to evade responsibility by suggesting that other judges use similar form OSCs and that he should not be disciplined until the Judicial Council has had a chance to review the forms.
His conduct, the CJP said, “was not the accidental byproduct of a poorly drafted form” but rather “Judge Sohigian’s determination to issue OSC’s for the improper purpose of compelling innocent parties and counsel to provide testimony [about who was responsible for failure to serve notice] under threat of sanctions, when those sanctions could not have been lawfully imposed on them for the misconduct cited in the OSC’s.”
Private Discipline Cited
The commission said it also took into consideration the fact that Sohigian drew private discipline in 1991—the same year that sanctions orders imposed by him in at least four cases were overturned by the Court of Appeal—for improperly ordering attorneys whom he had sanctioned for exceeding the page limit on law-and-motion briefs to provide copies of his orders to any judges to whom they presented requests for waivers of the page limit in the future.
The other incident cited by the commission involved an appearance in April of last year by attorney Peter Q. Ezzell of Haight, Brown & Bonesteel, who was representing another law firm in a suit for recovery of unpaid fees.
According to transcript excerpts cited by the commission, the judge challenged Ezell’s credibility after the attorney asked if he could check a box he had brought to court to see if it contained a pleading that the attorney had earlier told Sohigian he did not have.
After saying that he had a “very uneasy feeling about” Ezzell suddenly suggesting he might have the document after all, the judge said:
“I’ll give you whatever period of time to look for your pleading you would like. Would you like me to sit here on the bench while you look for you [sic] or would you like me to go into recess? That’s very courtly of you, but I think in view of these inconsistent statements by Mr. Ezzell, you better wait and find out whether he does or does not have his own pleading since he stated both he does have it and does not have it.”
When Ezell reported that he found the document, Sohigian responded:
“That must be very comforting with respect to what you said the second time around. Go ahead and look at it. Then make whatever argument you wish regarding this topic that I raised except for the topics of credibility and accuracy.”
When Ezzell indicated that he was not a bankruptcy lawyer and could not answer the judge’s question as to whether certain defendants could be dismissed under federal bankruptcy law, Sohigian chided him for being unable to answer a question that he “knew...was going to be asked,” and said his comment about not being a bankruptcy lawyer “begins to stretch the membrane.”
The judge then took a 20-minute recess and told Ezzell to go across the street to the law library and research the issue. When Ezzell reported that he had not gone to the library, but had called his office and had someone there read him portions of the relevant cases, the judge chided him again:
“Sooner or later you have to take a legal position without saying, I don’t know what the law is or somebody read something to me. In other words, you have to be the attorney for your client and you’ve got to make whatever legal argument that is legally either proper – I hope it’s proper. Certainly in your client’s interest. I think we should dispense with the, I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Sohigian went on to say that he was going to issue an order staying the trial pending resolution of bankruptcy issues, and asked Ezzell for help in preparing the written order “if you care to give it,” but said that if the attorney “would rather not be of assistance,” he would “do the necessary work on that myself.”
Sohigian did not return a MetNews phone call, but in a statement issued through his attorney, he said that he thought his actions with regard to “civil case management problems” were proper, and that he did not actually punish any party or attorney in connection with those matters.
He said that he “of course” accepted the commission’s decision that he was wrong.
As to the Ezzell matter, the judge explained that on the day in question he “was suffering from serious pain and from spinal stenosis and was under medication which caused me to be sick to my stomach and have cramps and gastric upset.” The pain, he said, was alleviated by surgery the following month.
“I apologize to the attorney involved,” he said. Ezzell could not be reached for comment.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company