Court reopens third case after Center uncovered judicial conflicts of interest

Judge's wife owned up to $100,000 in ExxonMobil stock when company came before him

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A federal appeals court has withdrawn a three-judge panel’s 2007 dismissal of a Pennsylvania man’s lawsuit against ExxonMobil Corp. after a Center for Public Integrity investigation found that the wife of one of the judges owned up to $100,000 worth of stock in the oil company at the time of the panel’s decision.

The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had dubbed the case as “frivolous” when it originally dismissed the case that accused ExxonMobil and its chairman of maliciously and illegally raising oil and gas prices.

But the court reopened the case on May 15, one day after the court received a letter from the plaintiff, Daniel Tilli, saying that he was “in disbelief” that Judge Thomas Reavley did not know that his wife had owned stock in the oil company until seven years after the court ruled. Reavley is married to fellow 5th Circuit Judge Carolyn King.

Tilli, a Bethlehem, Pa., resident who represented himself, requested that a new panel hear his case because Reavley was “not impartial.”

By law, judges cannot own even a single share of stock in companies that come before them. Nor can their spouses or dependent children.

Tilli learned about the judge’s conflict of interest after it was brought to the 5th Circuit’s attention by the Center in early April. The Center identified the conflict while reporting its months-long “Juris Imprudence” investigation, which found 26 other examples since 2010 where federal appellate judges ruled on cases in which they had a financial conflict.

As required under court rules, Reavley and judges in all of those cases had letters sent to the litigants to alert them of the mistakes. The letters were the first step in possibly reopening the cases.

Reavley’s case is the third to be reopened due to the Center’s reporting.

In one case that was reopened because of a stock conflict involving 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Allyson Duncan, a new three-judge panel reached the same decision as the first. Another case tainted by stock ownership of 11th Circuit Judge Frank Hull is still pending. Many of the others remain in limbo.

Lyle Cayce, the 5th Circuit clerk of court, told the Center that Reavley’s involvement in the Tilli case was the result of a “staff error.” He said the case pre-dated an automated screening process, which helps the court avoid assigning judges to cases in which they have a conflict of interest.

Now that the 2007 judgment has been withdrawn, a newly constituted three-judge panel without Reavley will review the case. But it’s unclear how long it will take the new panel to reach a decision.

Because the case wrapped up nearly seven years ago, Cayce said the court is currently retrieving some case records, which are no longer stored in the court.

It’s also unclear how a new panel will rule. Neither Tilli nor an attorney for ExxonMobil could immediately be reached for comment.

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