A federal law clerk who reacted rudely when confronted with a conflict of interest in my wife's ongoing employment lawsuit against Infinity Insurance did not just lose his cool once. He did it twice.
David Waters Jr., who clerks for U.S. Magistrate T. Michael Putnam in the Northern District of Alabama, ended our first conversation by saying, "This conversation is over" and hanging up on me. I called back, mainly to ask Waters why he acted with such rudeness toward a citizen whose tax dollars help fund his job, his court, and the plush building in which he works.
Why did my query get under Waters' skin? Because I was confronting him with evidence that he and Putnam have a clear conflict of interest in a case styled Carol Shuler v. Infinity Property & Casualty et al (2:11-cv-03443-TMP). That's the case where my wife--we know her here as Mrs. Schnauzer--is suing her former employer for discrimination, wrongful termination, and other torts.
It turns out that people who work in federal courthouses--even the clerks--don't much like being challenged. That came through loud and clear in both of my conversations with David Waters.
What is the basis for the conflict of interest? Waters, a 2010 graduate of the University of Alabama law school, happens to be the son of Michael David Waters Sr., a partner in the Birmingham office of the national Jones Walker law firm. Kary Bryant Wolfe, one of Waters Sr.'s associates at Jones Walker, is representing Birmingham debt-collection attorney Angie Ingram, one of the primary defendants in my wife's case.
Translation: The son of a Jones Walker lawyer serves as clerk for the judge in a case that features a defendant that Jones Walker represents. Conflicts of interest in the law don't get much more glaring than that.
When I called David Waters back, he said he hung up on me because I was making "unfounded accusations that have no basis in reality." But the accusations weren't unfounded. In fact, they weren't accusations at all . . . they were statements of fact. David Waters' father does work at Jones Walker, one of his father's colleagues (Kary Bryant Wolfe) represents a defendant (debt-collection lawyer Angie Ingram) in my wife's lawsuit, and Waters Jr.'s boss (Judge Putnam) is presiding over the case.
Waters Jr. confirmed some of that and could not deny any of it. After all, it's a matter of public record. So what did he do? He tried to claim there was no actual conflict, that--in spite of how it might appear--my wife's case was being handled with the utmost fairness and transparency.
That, of course, is rubbish. Whether my wife actually is being cheated is beside the point--and as someone with a law degree, Waters Jr. should know that. Under 28 U.S. Code 455, a federal judge or magistrate must disqualify himself "in any proceeding where his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." A person with three functioning brain cells not only "might reasonably question" Putnam's impartiality, he definitely would question it. That means it was Putnam's duty to disclose the conflict and step down from the case at the outset. It should not have been an issue that my wife or I had to point out.
Aside from the legal technicalities, the case presents plenty of evidence that my wife actually is being cheated in the case. A number of key defendants--especially Infinity, American Express, debt-collection firm NCO, and its lawyer, Laura Nettles--remain in the case, and discovery is moving forward on them.
But Angie Ingram was dismissed on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, even though she attached voluminous "matters outside the pleadings" with her document--and that means it must be treated as a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56, and she is subject to discovery. In other words, Ingram unlawfully was dismissed from the case at this juncture. Perhaps it will be proper to dismiss her at summary judgment, after discovery has been conducted, but her exit now is premature, under the law.
A reasonable observer might ask: Was Angie Ingram improperly dismissed only because she is represented by Jones Walker--and the son of a Jones Walker partner works for the judge on the case? This obviously is a compelling question for Mrs. Schnauzer, but it also should be of interest to defendants who were not unlawfully dismissed. If I'm in their shoes, I am asking, "Hey, why is Angie Ingram getting special treatment?"
Near the beginning of our second conversation, Waters Jr. claims my concerns are "not material." Toward the end of the conversation, when I have made it clear to him that my concerns are material and that Judge Putnam is acting outside the law, I hear those familiar words . . .
"This conversation is over."
And then . . . click.