Here is a maxim I've learned in roughly 12 years of fighting corruption in our broken justice system: If a party in a lawsuit drags its feet on turning over documents in the discovery process, you can almost bet that party is trying to hide proof of its wrongdoing.
A classic example comes in a recent report that lawyers for the University of Alabama System are not cooperating with discovery requests in a wrongful-death case stemming from the Amy Bishop shootings in February 2010.
Bishop, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, entered a guilty plea last September of killing three of her fellow faculty members in the biology department at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). The shootings came after Bishop had been denied tenured, and her appeal dismissed.
The families of two of the victims--Dr. Maria Ragland Davis and Dr. Adriel Johnson--sued Bishop, her husband, and UAH Provost Dr. Vistasp Karbhari. The lawsuit alleges that Karbhari knew Bishop was deeply upset about the tenure decision, and he did not follow university procedures for dealing with distraught staff members.
You might think the UA System would have the decency to at least cooperate with victims' families in the Bishop case. But you would be wrong. And that is zero surprise to me.
As regular readers know, I've had the "pleasure" of suing the UA System. That came from my wrongful termination in May 2008 after almost 20 years as an editor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). We've presented indisputable evidence, in the form of a tape-recorded phone conversation with a UAB human-resources official, that I was targeted because of my reporting on this blog about the prosecution of former governor Don Siegelman.
First Amendment violations can't come in a more blatant fashion than that. But did I win my lawsuit on an issue that could be proven beyond a doubt? Nope, and that's because U.S. District Judge William M. Acker Jr., an 84-year-old Reagan appointee, corruptly granted the university summary judgment.
This surely will not make the families of the UAH victims feel any better, but at least they are getting to conduct discovery in their case. That doesn't always happen when you go up against the University of Alabama--and I know from personal experience.
Clear procedural and case law states that summary judgment cannot be considered, much less granted, when the opposing party has not been able to conduct adequate discovery. That simple standard is perhaps best described in a case styled Snook v. Trust Company of Georgia, 859 F. 2d 865 (11th Cir., 1988). Acker ignored the law and granted summary judgment without giving me the chance to conduct any discovery, adequate or otherwise.
Lisa Huggins, one of UA's chief lawyers on the Birmingham campus, has to know that my case was unlawfully dismissed. And she almost certainly knows that's because discovery would have yielded mounds of evidence that I was, in fact, cheated out of my job because certain legal and political elites did not like the content of my blog.
But does Huggins care that my due process rights were trashed beyond comprehension? Is Huggins going to stand up and acknowledge that a judge who probably borders on senility violated his oath to uphold the law? Of course not--and that's because she and her taxpayer-funded client benefited from the bogus rulings.
Anyone who doubts that UA acted with utter disdain for the law in my case, should check out the university's behavior in the Amy Bishop case. And this involves three families who are trying to recover from the violent deaths of loved ones on UA property, under UA "management."
According to a report at al.com, the families had to file a motion to compel, seeking to force UA to turn over discoverable documents. The university responded by claiming the documents would cost millions of dollars to retrieve.
Is there anything out of the ordinary about the families discovery requests? The answer is no, according to these words from reporter Brian Lawson:
The plaintiffs asked Circuit Judge Ruth Ann Hall to order the defendants comply with discovery and subpoena requests in a "reasonable and cost-effective manner." The plaintiffs are seeking phone records for numbers assigned to Karbhari, former UAH President Dr. David Williams and several UAH employees and "security detail information" for Karbhari, Williams and Shelbie King Hall, the UAH administration building.
They are also seeking "correspondence and communications transmitted by and to Dr. Vistasp Karbhari regarding Amy Bishop via University email accounts."
Phone and e-mail records? That is standard information to seek in a lawsuit. It's exactly what I would have sought if I had been allowed to conduct discovery in my case.
How does UA react to such reasonable and lawful discovery requests? In my case, someone connected to the university commits a federal crime--obstruction of justice--by communicating to a corrupt judge that discovery needs to be short-circuited. (By the way, that's not just a guess on my part; Judge Acker's own words in open court, captured on a transcript, point to such unlawful ex parte communication.)
In the Bishop case, the university wants victims' families to shell out millions of dollars for information to which they clearly are entitled under the law.
Why are UA lawyers behaving in such an unconscionable fashion? I think the answer is simple. In fact, I pretty much predicted the current discovery impasse in a post titled "Lawsuits Are Piling Up Over Mass Shooting In Alabama," dated February 17, 2011:
Playing legal hardball with families who have seen loved ones killed or injured on UA property could turn into a public-relations nightmare.
Worse for the university, perhaps, is the thought that any of the lawsuits could advance to the discovery stage. If that happens, the public could wind up finding out what happened with Amy Bishop's tenure process in the weeks and months leading up to the shooting. As we reported previously, evidence strongly suggests that Bishop, while she had a prickly personality, met the criteria for tenure:
"Reports about Bishop's teaching ability are a mixed bag. Some students rated her highly, finding her to be insightful, effective, and caring. Others complained, saying she lectured mostly from the textbook, gave unfair tests, and had a distant manner.
But Bishop's record as a researcher, alone, indicates that she probably met the criteria for tenure. UAH recently received an Area Research Enhancement Award (AREA) from the National Institues of Health, a grant designed to promote research at universities that have not traditionally received much NIH support. Who brought home that major grant? Amy Bishop."
Our review of the public record leaves little doubt that Amy Bishop met the criteria for tenure, but her bid was denied because certain individuals did not like her--or perhaps were jealous of her. An anonymous colleague reportedly deemed Bishop "crazy" during the tenure-review process, even though the faculty member apparently had no expertise in mental-health issues. From our post titled "What Role Did 'Crazy' Comment Play in Shootings at UAH?"
If the anonymous professor had legitimate grounds for thinking Amy Bishop might be a threat to herself or others, there were other avenues to take. He could have contacted human resources, the legal office, campus police--the list goes on.
My understanding about the tenure process, and I worked in higher education for a long time, is that it's supposed to be about a junior faculty member's capabilities in three areas--teaching, research, and service. In many instances, I'm told, service carries almost no weight, teaching carries some weight, and research carries a whole lot of weight. Research, which is particularly important in the sciences, was Amy Bishop's strong suit--and that leads us to believe that she almost certainly met the criteria for tenure.
I've seen no indication that the tenure process is supposed to be an opportunity for uninformed and unqualified individuals to question a candidate's mental health. And it certainly is not a time for administrators to allow such individuals to sway life-changing decisions.
So why is UA now stonewalling on discovery in a wrongful-death lawsuit? As someone who worked in the UA System for almost 20 years and has seen how the university conducts itself in litigation, I have no doubt about the answer: Amy Bishop should have been granted tenure, but her application was denied for improper reasons--and discovery would show that Provost Vistasp Karbhari hardly was alone in handling the process badly.
My guess is that at least a dozen administrators and faculty members played key roles in botching the Bishop tenure-review process and should be held accountable in the wrongful-death lawsuits.
UA is withholding discovery documents in an effort to provide cover for those individuals--and to ensure that the public never learns what really happened with the Amy Bishop shootings in Huntsville.