Friday, February 7, 2003
Ninth Circuit Rejects Judicial Bias Claim in Dispute Between Lawyers for Heirs of DHL Founder
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday rejected a claim that a federal judge should have recused himself in a suit between two lawyers because one of them was a former law clerk and “fishing buddy” of the judge.
The panel upheld an $83,000 judgment in favor of Hawaii attorney Bruce Lee Jorgensen in the case, which grew out of the highly publicized probate of the estate of Larry L. Hillblom.
The 1969 Boalt Hall graduate and founder of the air courier service DHL Worldwide Express died in a 1995 plane crash, leaving behind claims by a number of young East Asian and Pacific Islander women that he had sex with them when they were teenagers and had fathered their children, and a will that did not contain a clause disinheriting children.
The will was probated in Saipan, capital of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Hillblom’s primary residence in the last years of his life. Those proceedings were punctuated by claims that associates of Hillblom concealed or destroyed any evidence that could be used by the heirs to link themselves to Hillblom through DNA.
Instead, the claimants’ attorneys—one news account said more than 200 lawyers were involved—sought to establish paternity by using DNA to show that several alleged heirs were biologically related to each other, intending to rely on testimonial evidence to establish that Hillblom had to be the common ancestor.
Hillblom’s mother eventually provided a DNA sample confirming that four of the claimants were her grandchildren.
The probate was settled, according to reports, with 60 percent of the estate, which was estimated at $550 million or more, going to the alleged heirs. The four children with the strongest claims received the bulk of the money, other claimants received lesser sums, and the remaining 40 percent went to charity as provided in the will, primarily to medical research at the University of California.
The dispute ruled on yesterday by the Ninth Circuit involved Jorgensen, Benjamin B. Cassiday III, and another Hawaii lawyer, John Perkin. The three agreed to a joint venture in 1996, pursuant to which they were to work together in locating and representing Hillblom heirs and divide the fees.
But Jorgensen sued three years later, claiming that Cassiday and Salvador Laurel, a former vice president of the Phillipines appointed by a court in that country as guardian for some of the alleged heirs, froze him out of representing those claimants and kept $1.5 million in fees.
Cassiday moved to disqualify the commonwealth’s only federal judge, U.S. District Judge Alex Munson, from hearing the case. But Munson denied the motion, and the case eventually went to jury trial, following which Munson denied Jorgensen’s motions seeking an increased judgment or a new trial.
Both sides appealed.
In concluding that Munson was not required to bow out of the case, Senior Judge Arthur AlarcŰn wrote for the appellate panel that the relationship between Jorgensen and Munson was not close enough to require disqualification.
Although Jorgensen worked for the judge for two years, AlarcŰn explained, that relationship ended eight years before the suit was filed. Jorgensen then moved to Hawaii and did not have a continuing relationship with the judge, the appellate jurist added.
And they had only gone fishing once, along with several other people, AlarcŰn pointed out.
Ruling on Jorgensen’s cross-appeal, the panel ruled that Munson erred in denying an award of attorney fees. The judge’s holding that the “rancor” that existed on both sides of the dispute made an award of fees inappropriate, AlarcŰn said, was inconsistent with Hawaii law—which the court found controlled the agreement—making a fee award mandatory when provided for in a written contract.
The case is Jorgensen v. Cassiday, 01-17458.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company