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In a sharply worded, six-page order, U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Thrash Jr. slapped down a plaintiffs’ lawyer who sought the judge’s recusal from three long-running employee suits against The Coca-Cola Co. Thrash’s order responded to Atlanta attorney, Pamela I. Atkins, who had filed a motion to disqualify Thrash on behalf of three Coke employees after receiving word from Coke counsel King & Spalding that the firm had hired Thrash’s law clerk, Meredith A. Bunn. The K&S letter assured Atkins that Bunn�who clerked for Thrash for two years while the cases were pending�would have no involvement in defending Coke in those cases. Atkins’ Sept. 11 motion also asked Thrash to vacate recent orders he had issued in the cases, all actions under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The cases dealt with Coke’s failure to pay certain disability benefits to Atkins’ clients, Coke employees Lisa Ann Byars, Felicia Weems and Michelle Palmeri, all of whom had participated in Coke’s long-term disability income plan. Atkins asked Thrash to vacate his August orders that had offered Atkins’ clients mixed success. He had ruled that Coke had wrongly denied Byars disability benefits but limited her recovery to two years of payments and denied her request for legal fees. Thrash denied Palmeri disability benefits but granted her request for monetary penalties against Coke, and he found in favor of Coke in Weems’ suit. In her motion, Atkins suggested that Bunn “was in a position to have influenced the decision or had input into the decision at a time when she knew or thought she would be employed by a firm representing the Coca-Cola defendants.” But in his Sept. 25 order, Thrash wrote, “Five minutes of legal research would have shown that there is an overwhelming body of law that rejects the plaintiffs’ argument.” The judge then cited cases from the U.S. Courts of Appeals for 1st, 2nd, 8th, 9th and 11th Circuits finding that judicial recusal is not necessary simply because law clerks have left a judge’s employ for a firm in a pending case. Thrash said that he adhered to the judicial code of conduct with regard to Bunn after she got the job offer. “I immediately disqualified her from working on any case in which the firm was involved,” Thrash stated. “Accordingly, at no time did she have any involvement in these cases or in the orders that I issued. “The plaintiffs contend that the purpose for their motions is merely �to assure that the relationship between Ms. Bunn and defense counsel was communicated in a timely manner to the court.’ � I can assure the plaintiffs and their counsel that I timely received all relevant information concerning this relationship and that Ms. Bunn played no role whatsoever in my decisions in these cases.” Thrash also took issue with Atkins’ delay in raising her concerns, suggesting she may have waited until she knew whether the judge would rule in her clients’ favor. “In this instance, the plaintiffs’ counsel received a letter from King & Spalding on or about Aug. 3, 2006, alerting her to Ms. Bunn’s status with their firm. I did not rule on the motions pending in any of these cases until Aug. 24, 2006. The plaintiffs’ counsel states that she had commenced �an inquiry into these matters’ that was �ongoing at the time the Court’s decisions were issued.’ This is insufficient. If any of the plaintiffs or their counsel held any real concerns regarding my impartiality, they should have immediately alerted me upon receipt of opposing counsel’s letter.” The case is Byars v. The Coca-Cola Co., No. CV 3124-1:01, (N.D. Ga.). R. Robin McDonald can be reached at [email protected]

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