We previously posted about a fascinating situation in the West Virginia judicial system involving an apparent conflict of interest by a judge on the state’s highest bench, and a nursing home case. The Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, the state’s highest court, was called upon to recuse herself from a case before the court that found against a nursing home at the trial level and resulted in a $90 million award to the family of an elderly nursing home resident that passed away after nearly three weeks at the facility.
There was conflict over whether the resident’s dementia led to her ultimate death, or if it was dehydration from a possible neglect by nursing home staffers that led to her death. The high court upheld the ruling against the Heartland Nursing Home, also refusing to throw out punitive damages, and modifying the damages award to reduce it to about $48 million. The Chief Justice wrote the majority opinion rendering the decision in the plaintiff’s favor. The case went up on appeal in part on the argument that state law capped certain medical malpractice damages. The controversy over the Chief Justice’s involvement in that case centered on over $30,000 in campaign contributions she received for her re-election campaign and that was coincidentally arranged for by the attorney of the plaintiff in the Heartland case, who himself reportedly made a contribution of $1,000. This attorney also bought a Learjet plane for $1 million from the Chief Justice’s husband.
The Potential Nursing Home Case Conflict
Now, there is a similar nursing home abuse case, with the same plaintiff’s attorney that made the jet sale and political donations, that has gone up to the state Supreme Court, and the same Chief Justice again will not recuse herself over the same alleged conflict of interest. The attorney for the nursing home in this particular case moved the court for the Chief Justice to recuse herself from the case, but she refused and articulated her reasoning in a 29-page reply, largely citing the media frenzy over the prior Heartland case, and how the law on judicial recusal does not mandate removing herself in this case. She also indicated that doing so would potentially create a precedent whereby calls in the media for a recusal would push other judges to do it in the future, and unnecessarily disrupt the judicial process. The Chief Justice disclaimed any relationship with the plaintiff’s attorney and stated that her husband’s sale of the jet to that same attorney had nothing to do with any nursing home case.
The lengthy response further criticized the defense attorney who submitted the motion for abusing the recusal option based on attenuated facts, and dismissed the attorney’s argument that the Chief Justice’s husband’s recently filed lawsuit (presumably as the plaintiff’s attorney) against another nursing home would taint her ability to fairly decide a separate case of nursing home abuse. (That case reportedly has been settled and is over.) The Chief Justice further has requested that the defense attorney’s alleged negligent citation of her husband’s case, which is no longer active, be investigated for possible discipline of that attorney. At least one legal expert saw this as an abuse of power and a possible chilling effect on attorneys who in the future may think twice about bringing motions to request that a judge recuse him or herself from a case.
This case exemplifies the balancing act of judges and attorneys in appropriately participating in cases without conflicts of interest. It demonstrates the importance of ensuring that cases are dealt with free of these conflicts and honestly.
See Related Blog Posts: