Fifth Circuit Reassigns Employment Case Against Hospital, Finding District Court Judge Prejudiced

On Friday, an opinion was issued in the case of Audrey Miller v. Sam Houston State University, et al. The appeal, filed in the Fifth Circuit, concerns two consolidated cases, Miller v. Sam Houston State University (SHSU) and the Texas State University System and Miller v. University of Houston System, University of Houston Downtown (UHD). The court reversed and remanded the case and took the extraordinary step of officially reassigning the case to a new district judge due to noted prejudgment on the part of the trial judge and in a desire to avoid the appearance of impropriety in further actions in this case.

The appellate court recounted that Miller was originally employed as a tenure-track professor at SHSU, with duties including supervising students in the Clinical Doctoral program, teaching practicum courses, and serving on dissertation committees. Miller made protests regarding the level of her workload, while the tenure committee noted that she lacked “collaborative generosity toward her colleagues”. After being denied tenure, Miller filed EEOC and Texas Workforce Commission complaints alleging sex discrimination and retaliation. Miller later applied to work for UHD, and during the application process, her former employer was contacted and she was not hired for the vacancy. She also filed separate complaints against UHD with the EEOC and Texas Workforce Commission.

When the cases went to trial, unusual actions were taken by the trial judge, according to the opinion. The judge made several rulings with minimal or no notice and took several sua sponte actions, including consolidating the two cases over the objections of all parties, asking the plaintiff if she preferred to proceed against the school or against the school system and dismissing the school system without briefing, not permitting discovery or deposition of witnesses, and making several comments during the hearings that indicated that the judge was assigning motives and limitations based on prior cases that had been heard by the court in a way that indicated prejudgment of the plaintiff’s case. The actions culminated in the judge suggesting that the defendants move for summary judgment and the court granting the motion on the spot.

The Fifth Circuit took exception to this decision-making process, noting in fine detail that the courts are meant to be impartial arbiters who did not pre-judge or otherwise favor parties. The court noted that sua sponte actions must be weighted with permitting parties proper notice and opportunity to be heard in response to the proposed action. The court also noted that the discovery in the case was extremely circumscribed to the point of unfairness and that this was directly contrary to the spirit and word of the court rules and due process. Finally, the court took the extraordinary step of noting the extreme pre-judgment made by the trial court and noting that reassignment of the case to a different judge was ironically an easy decision to come to due to the lack of extensive discovery that the new judge would have to become familiar with.

The plaintiff was represented by TB Robinson Law Group. The defendants as state universities were represented by the Texas Office of the Attorney General.