Case reopened after Center reveals judge's conflict of interest

Alabama woman sued engineering firm for discrimination

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A federal court has scrapped a 2010 decision in an employment discrimination appeal and plans to reopen the case after The Center for Public Integrity uncovered a conflict of interest by one of its judges.

Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Susan Black vacated the original opinion in the case involving Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. last week and ordered it be reconsidered by a new panel of judges.

Black tossed the decision because 11th Circuit Judge Frank Hull bought up to $15,000 worth of stock in Jacobs several months before ruling in favor of the international construction giant, violating court rules.

The rehearing came as a surprise to Lee Winston, who represented Shirley Brown of Huntsville, Ala., more than three years ago in the complaint against the engineering firm. Brown, who is African-American, sued the firm alleging racial and sexual discrimination.

“I’m glad it’s getting a fresh look,” said Winston, who is based in Birmingham, Ala. “Obviously the judge shouldn’t have heard the case.”

The 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, covers Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The appellate courts are second only to the U.S. Supreme Court in terms of seniority.

Marion F. Walker, the attorney representing Jacobs Engineering, said she has never had a decision vacated for a conflict in her 36 years as a lawyer in the circuit. But she told the Center that she doubts the opinion in this case will change much.

“We felt the record is pretty clear,” she said. “It’s regrettable because it puts other judges to work on something that three judges have already spent a great deal of time on.”

The case is one of 26 cited by the Center in its months-long Juris Imprudence investigation, in which judges had financial interests in a party with a case they heard. Judges cannot own even a single share of stock in companies that come before them.

The Center examined the three most recent years of financial disclosure reports filed by 255 of the 258 judges who sit on the nation’s 13 appellate circuits to determine if judges’ financial ties overlapped with their work on the courts.

The April 28 story showed a lack of accountability in the federal court system. Judges face no formal punishment for breaking these rules.

In response to the Center’s findings, Hull and 15 other judges acknowledged that they should not have sat on the cases. Hull told the Center that her stock ownership slipped through a multi-step screening process meant to prevent conflicts.

The courts formally notified litigants such as Brown about the judges’ conflict of interest, giving them a chance to ask for the cases to be reheard with new judges.

One other case was reopened as a result of the Center’s investigation. Fourth Circuit Judge Allyson Duncan owned General Electric Co. stock yet ruled on a 2010 case involving the company. A new panel of judges, without Duncan, reached the same conclusion as the original panel last month.

In a 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case, the parties opted not to pursue a rehearing despite a conflict.

But many of the other cases remain in limbo.

Reity O'Brien and Chris Young contributed to this report.