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RAMIREZ v. ELGIN PONTIAC GMC

February 21, 2002

CARLOS RAMIREZ, PLAINTIFF,
V.
ELGIN PONTIAC GMC, INC., AND ONYX ACCEPTANCE CORP., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles R. Norgle, Sr., District Judge.

OPINION AND ORDER

Before the court is Plaintiff's motion for recusal, brought pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 455 (a) and 455(b)(1), or, in the alternative, 28 U.S.C. § 144. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion is denied.

I. BACKGROUND

The present case has witnessed much procedural activity, some of which is excerpted to provide a background for the present motion for recusal. In August 1999, Plaintiff filed a five-count complaint against Defendants Elgin Pontiac GMC, Inc. ("Elgin Pontiac") and Onyx Acceptance Corp. ("Onyx") seeking relief for an alleged violation of the Truth in Lending Act ("TILA"), and various state law claims. (R. 1.) Elgin Pontiac filed an answer raising the affirmative defense that Plaintiff had provided a false social security number on his credit application. (R. 4.) Onyx also asserted this affirmative defense in its amended answer. (R. 10.) Plaintiffs reply admitted that he had provided a false social security number on the credit application. (R. 11.)

The parties began discovery, which spawned a motion to compel discovery and for sanctions pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37 brought by Elgin Pontiac, seeking discovery regarding Plaintiff's use of the false social security number on his credit application. (R. 17.) The court granted the motion to compel. (R. 19.)

Unsatisfied with Plaintiff's compliance with the order compelling discovery, Elgin Pontiac filed a motion to dismiss and for sanctions pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37. (R. 25.) The motion to dismiss was brought in response to Plaintiff's failure to provide discovery regarding the affirmative defense that Plaintiff had provided a false social security number on his credit application, in that Plaintiff claimed a privilege based on the Fifth Amendment. The court denied Elgin Pontiac's motion to dismiss, but granted the motion for sanctions ordering "exclusion of certain evidence; adverse or negative inference from other evidence, and that plaintiff has failed properly to assert privilege," and further granted a motion for fees and costs associated with the motion. (See Minute Order Feb. 9, 2001, R. 42.) Plaintiff thereafter filed a motion for reconsideration of the court's February 9, 2001 ruling. (R. 51.) Elgin Pontiac also filed a motion for sanctions pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 11(c) (R. 29.), which the court denied. (See Minute Order Feb. 9, 2001, R. 44.) Onyx filed a similar motion to compel seeking the same discovery (R. 30.), and a similar motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37. (R. 31.), which the court denied. (See Minute Order Feb. 9, 2001, R. 43.) In the February 9, 2001 order, the court noted that it had considered converting the motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment, but declined to do so based on the amount of discovery undertaken, and advised to parties that they were granted leave to file motions for summary judgment.

II. DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs motion is brought pursuant to three separate statutes, however, all three statutes seek to have the court recuse itself from the present case on the basis of alleged bias or prejudice. 28 U.S.C. § 144 was enacted in 1911 as a provision requiring "district-judge recusal for bias in general." Liteky v. United States, 510 U.S. 540, 544 (1994). In 1974, 28 U.S.C. § 455 was amended to encompass not only recusal of a judge for having an interest or relationship with a party, as previous to 1974, but to encompass "elements of general `bias and prejudice' recusal that had previously been addressed only by § 144." Liteky, 510 U.S. at 548. The 1974 amendment to § 455 made the provision of § 144 dealing with bias and prejudice applicable to "[a]ny justice, judge, or magistrate of the United States." 28 U.S.C. § 455 (a). In analyzing both 28 U.S.C. § 455 and § 144, along with relevant case law, the court finds that Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that a reasonable person would find any bias or prejudice by the court that would lead to determine that recusal would be proper. The court addresses each statute in turn.

A. 28 U.S.C. § 455 (a) and 28 U.S.C. § 455 (b)(1)

Plaintiff asserts that the court should disqualify itself from the present case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 455 (a). Section 455(a) requires a federal judge to "disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." 28 U.S.C. § 455 (a). Section 455(a) has been termed the "`catchall' recusal provision, covering both `interest and relationship' and `bias and prejudice' grounds." Liteky, 510 U.S. at 548. The inquiry under § 455(a) is evaluated on an objective basis. Id. Thus, the inquiry is "whether a reasonable person perceives a significant risk that the judge will resolve the case on a basis other than the merits." Hook v. McDade, 89 F.3d 350, 353 (7th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). This inquiry is made based on a reasonable person standard, as opposed to "a hypersensitive or unduly suspicious person," id., so as to avoid "a system of preemptory strikes and judge shopping." Id. "`Judge shopping' is a practice that should not be encouraged." In re Mann, 229 F.3d 657, 658 (7th Cir. 2000). Thus, trivial risks of perceived impartiality are insufficient to warrant recusal. Id. The objective reasonable person standard of § 455(a) is intended to promote public confidence in the impartiality of the judicial process. See Pepsico Inc. v. Marion Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co., 99 C 3939, 2000 WL 263973, *12 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 6, 2000). In furthering the policy of public confidence in the impartiality of the judicial process, a court faced with a motion under § 455(a) must recuse itself where valid reasons are presented, and must not recuse itself where the proffered reasons are not valid. See New York City Housing Development Corp. v. Hart, 796 F.2d 976, 981 (7th Cir. 1986); see also United States v. Baskes, 687 F.2d 165, 170 (7th Cir. 1981) ("A motion for recusal should not be granted lightly; a judge is under as much obligation not to recuse himself when facts do not show prejudice as he is to recuse himself if they do.").

Plaintiff also asserts that the court should disqualify itself from the present case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 455 (b)(1). Section 455(b)(1) more specifically addresses the bias and prejudice grounds of the catchall provision of § 455(a). Section 455(b)(1) provides that a judge shall disqualify himself if he "has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party." 28 U.S.C. § 455 (b)(1). The inquiry under § 455(b)(1) is also evaluated on an objective basis, by determining "whether a reasonable person would be convinced that the judge was biased." Brokaw v. Mercer County. 235 F.3d 1000, 1025 (7th Cir. 2000). "Recusal under § 455(b)(1) `is required only if actual bias or prejudice is proved by compelling evidence.'" Id. (quoting Hook, 89 F.3d at 355). "`The negative bias or prejudice from which the law of recusal protects a party must be grounded in some personal animus or malice that the judge harbors against him, of a kind that a fair-minded person could not entirely set aside when judging certain persons or causes.'" Hook, 89 F.3d at 355 (quoting United States v. Balistrieri, 779 F.2d 1191, 1201 (7th Cir. 1985)).

The alleged bias sufficient to warrant recusal under both § 455(a) and § 455(b)(1) must stein from an extra judicial source. Liteky. 510 U.S. at 554. "[J]udicial rulings alone almost never constitute a valid basis for a bias or partiality motion." Id. at 555. "[O]pinions formed by the judge on the basis of facts introduced or events occurring in the course of the current proceedings, or of prior proceedings, do not constitute a basis for a bias or partiality motion unless they display a deep-seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible." Id.

The inquiry to be made under § 455(b)(1) is essentially the same as the inquiry made under § 455(a), whether a reasonable person would find that the judge is biased or prejudiced. The only difference is that § 455(b)(1) addresses itself to a bias or prejudice of the judge against a party, whereas § 455(a) addresses itself to a general bias or prejudice and interest or relationship that might lead the judge to decide the case on a basis other than the merits. The grounds that Plaintiff argues in support of his motion for recusal deal with the court's bias or prejudice, and thus ...


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