DeKalb State Court Judge Dax Lopez: Wilma Beaty’s conduct violated obligations as juror and bar’s ethics code. (File photo)
An Atlanta in-house lawyer spent a night in jail after she improperly contacted a DeKalb County judge by email, saying that she would “blame the plaintiff” in a trial for which she had been selected as a juror because she’d have to work nights and weekends to attend to her own client.
DeKalb State Court Judge Dax Lopez held Wilma Elizabeth Beaty in contempt, jailed her for 24 hours, fined her $500 and reported his findings to the State Bar of Georgia.
In a March 26 contempt order, Lopez said Beaty had failed during voir dire to answer “truthfully and completely” questions that the judge and counsel for the parties in the personal injury case posed. The judge also said that Beaty jeopardized the civil trial by failing to disclose “potential pro-defense biases” and by sending a personal email to the judge, informing him that she could be neither fair nor impartial.
Lopez described Beaty’s conduct as “unconscionable” and a violation of the bar’s professional ethics rules.
Moreover, Lopez said he was “astounded by the lack of remorse displayed by Ms. Beaty” during the contempt hearing he convened the morning after opening statements, as well as what the judge described as Beaty’s “general disdainful attitude toward the court and the trial process.”
Beaty, who is corporate counsel for PakLab in Atlanta, declined to comment on the ruling or her 24-hour sojourn in the DeKalb County Jail. PakLab offers contract manufacturing and engages in the transport, delivery, packaging and storage of personal beauty care products, fragrances, hair care products, body lotions and cosmetics.
Beaty was Juror No. 1 in a personal injury case stemming from a 2011 traffic accident.
Decatur attorney Charles McAleer, who represents the plaintiff, said the judge’s decision to jail Beaty and fine her $500 “was a first for a lot of people.” McAleer’s client, Matthew Callaway, was seeking damages for a back injury he sustained when his car was rear-ended in 2011.
McAleer said because Beaty was a lawyer, “The court held her to a much higher standard. That’s what got her in trouble. … I’ve never seen anything like it. A few other people in the courtroom said the same thing. We were all pretty shocked.”
Defense counsel Robb Cruser, who represented defendants Kelly and Patrick Walsh, said that in his 24 years in practice, “I’ve never dealt with a juror saying things like, ‘I’m not going to give it my best,’ and refusing to take the oath. … Usually, jurors do their duty.”
McAleer also said it has been difficult to determine what problems Beaty may have created for his client and whether what she insisted in correspondence with the judge was a pro-defense bias might have been communicated to other jurors before she was removed from the jury.
McAleer said that after deliberating three hours in the case, the remaining jurors and an alternate issued a verdict for his client—but only for $12,000.
McAleer said one juror told him the jury had decided to award $60,000 to repay medical expenses, then reduced it by 80 percent because jurors believed the plaintiff’s medical insurance policy would have paid 80 percent of those expenses “despite the fact the judge charged them that you can’t consider that in reaching a verdict.”
Cruser said the plaintiff had sought $60,000 in medical bill reimbursements, $15,000 in lost wages and from $250,000 to $750,000 in damages. The judge, he said, removed Beaty from the jury before any evidence was presented, and he does not believe that Beaty in any way tainted the case. Callaway, he said, had a pre-existing history of back trouble, and the accident was the result of a low-speed collision.
Cruser said the insurance carrier had offered to settle the case prior to trial for $100,000, but the plaintiff had turned it down.
McAleer said that when Beaty appeared in court as a member of the jury pool, he was inclined to select her for the jury precisely because she was a lawyer.
“I have had lawyers as jurors before,” he said. “Typically, they know what their duty is—that is to weigh the evidence. They aren’t typically persuaded by argument that has no foundation in evidence.”
“I like attorneys for that reason,” McAleer continued. “They view the evidence, weigh it and figure out whether a plaintiff has met his or her burden.” During voir dire, Beaty also said her father-in-law had sustained a serious spinal injury similar to Callaway’s, McAleer said.
“She certainly didn’t indicate in any way that she was unfavorable to our position,” he continued. “We decided she was better than a lot of others.”
“We had some issues with the jury in general,” he continued. “Not many were motivated. No one wanted to be there. They came in hostile. It was a tough crowd to deal with. We could hardly get anybody to respond to any questions. Voir dire was unlike anything I had seen in my life. … I couldn’t get anyone to answer my questions.”
One of the first signs of trouble was Beaty’s refusal to stand, take the oath and be sworn in as a juror, McAleer recalled. After some discussion, Lopez said he would talk to Beaty the following morning, he said.
That night, Beaty sent an email to Lopez’s personal email account—one which the judge later attached to his contempt order. In it, the lawyer wrote: “I cannot be fair and impartial in this case and as I advised cannot give it my best efforts.”
“Although you advised work is not an excuse, the fact of the matter is that I am the only lawyer at my small company and have responsibility for HR and legal,” she wrote. “We are in the midst of contract discussions with our largest customer which will not be on hold until this personal injury case is tried. So, I will now have to work in the evenings on breaks and at night to ‘catch up’ on my work, including now trying to reschedule a call for our largest customer, representing 29% of the company’s business, for 4:00 a.m. to accommodate the trial and the European attorney’s schedule to hopefully negotiate a contract our customer wants concluded this week … all of which I blame on the plaintiff.”
“I am certain this case is important to the parties,” Beaty concluded, “but my client’s matters are important to me and I am simply unable to prioritize this case—which appears should have been settled and no doubt was attempted to be settled—higher than my own client’s matters.”
The following morning, Lopez held a contempt hearing, at which Beaty represented herself. When McAleer learned of the contents of Beaty’s email and the bias she had asserted against the plaintiff, he said he asked the judge to inquire as to whether Beaty had communicated her hostility to anyone else on the jury.
“There were several other jurors who were openly hostile to being there for whatever reason,” he said. “I wanted to see if this juror had tainted the other jurors.” Beaty, he said, also volunteered during the hearing that she “wasn’t the only one making comments on having to serve.”
Lopez denied the request, the lawyer said.
Lopez wrote in his contempt order that, despite what she had written in her email, Beaty had failed to alert the judge or the attorneys during jury voir dire of the scheduling conflicts that Lopez said might have prevented her from serving as a juror.
“More importantly,” the judge said in his order, “Ms. Beaty failed to disclose her potential pro-defense biases to the court and the parties when asked whether she could perform her duties as a juror fairly and impartially. … Indeed, had she disclosed her pro-defendant views, the parties and the court could have taken appropriate action to ensure she would not participate in the adjudication of the civil action.”
Lopez then ruled, based on Beaty’s own admission during her contempt hearing, that she knew during voir dire she would be “a juror for the defense, and she failed to disclose the same to the attorneys conducting the voir dire examinations.”
“Ms. Beaty’s comment upon being chosen is quite telling and probably best explains her failure to participate fully and truthfully during voir dire,” Lopez concluded. “At that time she stated she ‘assumed she would not be chosen.’ She assumed incorrectly and the process jeopardized the fair and orderly adjudication of the civil matter before the court.”
Her conduct, the judge said, violated not only her obligations as a juror but also ran afoul of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct. Lopez said that Beaty had violated one rule barring false statements at trial and a second rule barring lawyers from seeking to influence a judge via ex-parte communication or by engaging in conduct intended to disrupt a trial.
In his contempt finding, Lopez noted that while Beaty’s conduct would be “unconscionable” regardless of her background, “as a highly credentialed attorney having graduated from Princeton and the University of Texas Law School … Ms. Beaty should have known better.”