A federal judge is set to rule Wednesday on a request that he recuse himself from presiding over a civil rights case he has been overseeing since 2011 due to a challenge from attorneys representing the county.
Attorneys for the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office say U.S. District Judge John Dowdell should remove himself from the case due to his prior involvement in an unrelated 2008 lawsuit.
Former Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor, who was involved in negotiations over the 2008 case, said Tuesday she doesn’t recall Dowdell being involved in the lawsuit in question. The lawsuit stemmed from a financial dispute between the city of Tulsa and then-Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz’s office.
Glanz and Sheriff Vic Regalado are asking Dowdell to remove himself from overseeing the civil rights trial involving the death of Elliott Williams, who died in Tulsa’s jail in 2011. Williams’ lawsuit is set to go to trial next week.
If Dowdell grants their request, he could be asked to recuse from several other civil rights lawsuits involving deaths and injuries of prisoners in the jail.
In a response filed Monday, attorneys for Williams’ estate said the recusal motion “is based on a falsehood” because the county’s attorneys have known about the alleged conflict for at least four years.
“The intent was obvious. Defendants wish to cause maximum disruption. They seek to delay these proceedings and thwart long-awaited justice for the Estate of Elliott Williams,” states the motion by attorney Bob Blakemore, of the Smolen, Smolen & Roytman firm.
“They want to shop for a new judge after certain pretrial decisions have not gone their way.”
The lawsuit over Williams’ death contains arguably the most egregious allegations against the county and former sheriff of any pending civil rights lawsuit related to the jail.
Police arrested Williams, a 37-year-old veteran, at an Owasso hotel after he suffered a mental breakdown over the breakup of his marriage. Williams was never booked, fingerprinted or photographed at the jail. He was also never charged with a crime until after his death.
Williams died Oct. 27, 2011 after jail and medical staff left him on the floor of a medical cell for five days — paralyzed from a broken neck — without food or water, records show.
A jail video shows detention officers tossed trays of food at his feet and placed a cup of water barely outside his reach while medical staff did not treat him or take him to the hospital.
Records indicate the jail’s medical and detention staff thought Williams was “faking paralysis” but he wasn’t seen by a physician until shortly before he died. More than 50 hours of videotape show that jail medical staff did not perform a simple test to determine whether Williams was paralyzed until hours before his death.
The state medical examiner’s office ruled he died from complications of a broken neck and dehydration. No charges were filed in Williams’ death and it’s unclear whether any jail employees or medical staff members were disciplined as a result.
Glanz and the county have denied liability in Williams’ case, saying if failures existed, they did not rise to the level of “deliberate indifference” that the plaintiffs are required to prove.
Though Glanz is no longer sheriff, he remains an individual defendant in the lawsuit. Regalado, and by extension the county, is the “official capacity” defendant.
The motion by Regalado and Glanz argues that Dowdell should be disqualified because the judge was a partner in a Tulsa law firm — Norman, Wohlgemuth, Chandler and Dowdell — that litigated a case against Tulsa County almost a decade ago.
Dowdell joined the firm in 1983 and became a shareholder in 1997. He was sworn in as a U.S. district judge for Tulsa’s Northern District in 2012.
The motion to recuse sites Dowdell’s alleged involvement in the 2008 case in which the city and county were in a dispute over an agreement to operate the jail.
“Judge John Dowdell was a partner at Norman Wohlgemuth Chandler and Dowdell at the time the Tulsa County case was filed and litigated, and his name appears on pleadings,” states the motion filed by Clark Brewster, a private attorney with the Brewster & De Angelis firm, which represents the sheriff’s office.
“As a partner of the firm, which has less than twelve attorneys, Judge John Dowdell not only participated in strategic discussions about the Tulsa County case with other partners and attorneys at the firm, but he benefitted financially from fees paid to his firm.”
Actually, Dowdell’s name only appears on pleadings in the 2008 case as part of the law firm’s name. He is not listed among the firm’s attorneys who represented the city or filed motions in the case.
Federal law states that a federal judge or magistrate “shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
Brewster has known about the perceived conflict since 2008 but did not raise the issue in court filings until shortly before a scheduled pre-trial hearing last week.
Brewster’s son, Corbin, worked for the judge’s firm that handled the 2008 case at issue. Corbin Brewster, who now works for his father’s firm, also apparently did not inform the court that he believed Dowdell had a conflict in the Williams case.
Several federal appeals court rulings have found that attorneys should not prevail on recusal motions filed after judges issue adverse rulings and based on facts the attorneys previously knew.
In July, Dowdell issued a strongly worded ruling that allowed Williams’ case to move forward to trial.
“A reasonable jury could find that Mr. Williams’ needs were obvious to any layperson. They could also find that the medical unit-wide attitude of inhumanity and indifference shown to him, which resulted in the delay and denial of medical care in the face of his symptoms that were obviously indicative of a serious medical condition or medical emergency, amounted to deliberate indifference,” his ruling states.
In an affidavit filed Tuesday, Tulsa attorney Joel Wohlgemuth states that he and Dowdell had several conversations about the 2008 case.
“Judge Dowdell was committed, as were others in our firm, to successfully conclude the jail case, and at least partially eliminate our perceived abuses by the Sheriff and his office. As a shareholder and director of NWCD, Judge Dowdell shared in the revenues generated by the significant fees paid by the City in the litigation,” his motion states.
If Dowdell declines to remove himself from the case, he is expected to hear pretrial motions and the case is scheduled to begin Tuesday. If he grants the recusal motion, a new judge would be assigned.
That action would likely delay the trial for the lawsuit, filed more than five years ago.
The federal civil rights lawsuit by Williams’ estate names Regalado in his official capacity, Glanz and the jail’s former medical provider, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc. CHC has already settled with Williams’ estate for an undisclosed amount and has been dismissed from the lawsuit.
The motion filed last week indicates Regalado was only recently made aware of Dowdell’s involvement in the law firm. Dowdell failed to disclose his association with the Tulsa County case during litigation, the motion states.
It says Dowdell’s involvement in the 2008 case “raises serious questions as to Judge Dowdell’s impartiality.”
The firm in which Dowdell was a partner sued the county in 2008 alleging that jail conditions under Glanz violated prisoners’ civil rights. Glanz demanded “unreasonable” fees for medical expenses from people booked into the jail by the city, creating money-making opportunities for himself and the county, the suit states.
The lawsuit also alleged Glanz “interfered with the negotiating process” and that his actions were “unauthorized, malicious and wrongful.” The suit sought punitive damages from Tulsa County.
An affidavit by Glanz states that Dowdell should disqualify himself from the state because his rulings have shown bias against the county.
The request to disqualify Dowdell in the case occurred just hours before a pre-trial hearing was scheduled to begin last week.