One of the newly confirmed judges on the federal bench in the Middle District of Pennsylvania signaled in a recent opinion that he will have little tolerance for what he sees as disrespect to the court.
In an order issued last week, U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann admonished the plaintiff’s counsel for "discourteous" behavior and threatened him with sanctions.
"Failing to comply with the orders of this court is regarded as a failure to prosecute his case … to say nothing of the fact that it is manifestly discourteous and rude — both to the court and opposing counsel," Brann said in Klatch-Maynard v. Sugarloaf Township. "If counsel continues to disregard the dictates of this court, he will be subject to costs and sanctions."
Brann joined the bench earlier this year after his confirmation from the U.S. Senate in late December. The case filed by Charmaine Klatch-Maynard was transferred to him from U.S. District Chief Judge Yvette Kane’s docket in January. Kane had inherited the case from U.S. District Senior Judge James Munley in 2011.
The suit alleges various civil rights violations on the part of several town officials in Sugarloaf stemming from their repeated refusal to allow Klatch-Maynard to attend town meetings with her service dog. Klatch-Maynard suffers from reflex sympathetic dystrophy, an ailment related to nerve damage, for which she has a service dog named Liesel, according to her complaint.
Klatch-Maynard filed the suit in 2006.
Jury selection for the trial had been scheduled for Monday, but has been moved to September 23 at the request of the defendants since, they said in their motion, Klatch-Maynard has recently undergone surgery.
"It will be prejudicial to the defense of this matter to allow the wife-plaintiff to have ‘selective memory’ when testifying at trial due to medication, especially in light of the court’s emphasis that ‘plaintiff’s credibility and testimony is crucial to the success’ of her claims," the defendants said in their motion for a continuance. She is scheduled to be called as witness by both the plaintiffs and the defendants.
In Brann’s order directed at the plaintiff’s lawyer, which predated the grant of continuance by three days, he detailed the behavior of Michael McGuigan, a lawyer in private practice in Levittown, Pa., who is representing Klatch-Maynard.
He started with the pretrial conference that was held in his chambers March 18, to which McGuigan arrived more than 20 minutes late.
Reached this week for comment, McGuigan explained that the court is a three-and-a-half to four hour drive from his office and he had initially gone to the wrong building.
"It’s the judge’s take," McGuigan said of the order, adding that he had no qualms with it.
"He was very straightforward," McGuigan said of Brann’s temperament toward attorneys.
After that conference, Brann said in the order, he directed the lawyers to file any motions in limine by April 8 and any oppositions to them by April 15.
"Although plaintiff’s counsel did not concur with defendants’ motions, he did not file any opposition to the motions," Brann said.
"Most significantly, the parties were directed to file proposed voir dire and jury instructions by April 8, 2013," Brann said. "Although defendants timely filed these documents, plaintiff has yet to submit either of them."
He gave McGuigan an additional month to file the papers, as he explained it, "in order to avoid injustice, or at least the appearance of it."
The third misstep detailed by the judge came when McGuigan failed to initiate a final pretrial telephone conference, as he had been scheduled to do.
"Counsel advised the court that he was unaware of the phone call and failed to provide any reasonable explanation for not initiating the call," Brann said.
He also noted that McGuigan was two days late in submitting his exhibits to the court and several days late in submitting the verification of the certified service dog as was requested by the court.
McGuigan had no complaints about the order, he said, and he expects a fair trial.
Zygmunt Bialkowski Jr. of Margolis Edelstein in Scranton represented the defendants and didn’t return a call for comment.
(Copies of the three-page opinion in Klatch-Maynard v. Sugarloaf Township, PICS No. 13-1082, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •