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Spangenberg Shibley & Liber LLP | May 3, 2018

Ohio's Recusal Rules Challenged After Chief Justice with Medical Industry Ties Presides Over One of State's Largest Malpractice Cases

Categories: Medical Malpractice

Hundreds of patients involved in one of Ohio’s largest medical malpractice cases last year are raising efforts to challenge the state’s rules on judge recusal after they were unsuccessful in having a trial judge with suspected ties to the medical industry removed from overseeing their cases. A recusal, also known as a judicial disqualification, is the process of abstaining from officiating over legal proceedings due to conflict of interest.

The underlying medical malpractice case involved hundreds of patients who filed suit against spinal surgeon Dr. Atiq Durrani over claims of fraudulent bills for billions of dollars in medically unnecessary spinal surgeries. There are over 500 cases pending against the doctor and his former medical group in both Ohio state and federal courts.

Last year, more than 450 plaintiffs who had filed suit against the doctor raised questioned about the impartiality of Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor and her selection of a special judge to preside over the claims. However, earlier this year, a U.S. District Judge rejected their request for an order to prevent O’Connor from deciding whether or not to disqualify the special judge she chose – Justice Mark Schweikert of Hamilton County. In late February, the plaintiffs took aim at the constitutionality of Ohio Supreme Court rules on recusals, and called for an independent panel to consider such matters, rather than the judge who is subject to the accusations.

The new lawsuit is a major challenge to existing rules on judicial recusal, which plaintiffs say are spotlighted in this particular case. According to their claims, Justice O’Connor had ties with the medical industry, pulled strings behind the scenes, and issued orders to Schweikert in violation of their right to a fair trial. O’Connor has publicly stated that campaign contributions received from the health care industry do not compromise her impartiality as a judge. Plaintiffs’ claims are supported by the fact that Schweikert has little trial judge experience, and has acknowledged taking orders from O’Connor.

Fairness in the Civil Justice System

The right to due process and a fair trial are pillars of the American judicial system, and recusal rules are an important part of ensuring such fairness. Although there are complex issues and procedural rules involved, the thrust of the argument raised by patients in this case focus on their rights and ensuring any judge involved in the case has the ability to act impartially.

As we have seen time and time again as Ohio civil trial lawyers, and as we have discussed in many of our blog posts, laws and justice are highly susceptible to influence, and particularly vulnerable to the flood of money in politics. This is particularly evident in matters where powerful corporations inject exorbitant amounts of money into the pockets of politicians. Their goals are not aligned with simply supporting candidates running for public office and government positions, but also in gaining the allegiance of those individuals to support their own agendas and motives when such a time comes.

This is a large reason why we see industry powerhouses supporting candidates who later back legislation or initiatives that benefit those corporations, such as lawmakers who support rollbacks of critical (though costly) safety regulations designed to prevent truck accidents, or legislators who back bills which establish damages caps and unfairly strip everyday citizens of the ability to recover full and fair compensation for harm caused by negligent medical professionals.

Our civil justice system is nothing without fairness and equality for all – after all, it is the venue where average hard-working individuals can make their voices heard against powerful corporate entities that want to drown them out, pay them less when they cause them undue harm, and benefit by protecting their bottom line.

Although the issue in this particular case has unique facts and circumstances, it does raise questions about why judges implicated by allegations of conflicting interests are able to decide the fate of their own cases when citizens have reasonable cause to question their impartiality. Many believe requests for an independent panel to evaluate recusals are reasonable in this sense, seeing as how judges frequently recuse themselves in a range of situations where their impartiality and biasness are questioned, such as:

  • Having a relationship with parties involved in a case (including campaign funding provided by a plaintiff or defendant, or holding investments in a corporation being sued).
  • Having background or experience in the matter, including a judge’s previous work as a prosecutor or attorney.
  • Having personal knowledge of the facts of a case or parties involved outside of the case itself.

Challenging a judge’s extra-judicial familiarity or involvement in a particular matter is a right that was built into our legal system for a reason – it ensures fairness. Protecting that right should always take precedence, especially when citizens raise critical questions about the rules our system uses to do just that, and it is something we must wait to see whether Ohio agrees or not.

Proven Civil Trial Attorneys in Cleveland, Ohio

Our legal team at Spangenberg Shibley & Liber LLP is committed to protecting clients’ rights and ensuring fairness in their legal journeys in matters involving personal injury, class actions, product liability, medical malpractice, and civil litigation. Since 1946, our attorneys have been dedicated to this mission, and have succeeded in recovered over a billion dollars in compensation for the injured and the wronged. If you have questions about a personal injury or civil case you wish to discuss with an award-winning attorney from our firm, contact us for a free consultation.