For the First Judicial District, 2012 was a year marked by one of its worst scandals in recent memory — allegations of regular ticket-fixing in Traffic Court for the politically connected but not for ordinary citizens.
The FJD’s year in 2012 also saw the resolution of another scandal: For $4 million, the law firm and its ex-partner sued by the FJD for alleged legal malpractice over a new Philadelphia family courthouse agreed to resolve the lawsuit.
2012 also brought a reduction in the number of mass torts in the FJD and also saw several big changes in the criminal justice system.
Trafficking in Tickets
In the FJD’s internal investigation conducted by consultant Chadwick Associates into the Traffic Court, the consultancy found that both elected Traffic Court judges and senior judges who were assigned to the court “routinely entertained and acted upon extrajudicial, ex parte requests for favorable treatment of traffic violators from sources within the Traffic Court and sources external to its operations. The judges also made their own requests for favorable treatment from other Traffic Court judges and granted preferential treatment sua sponte in the absence of special requests to violators whose identities or whose connections they knew. … Numerous court employees at all levels of administration participated in this practice and treated the ability to influence the outcomes of traffic cases on behalf of themselves, their family members and their friends as a perquisite of their jobs or as a requirement of employment.”
In the wake of the report, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Gary Glazer, who was appointed last year to oversee the minor court in the wake of a federal investigation into ticket-fixing, said it has been a well-kept secret in Philadelphia for generations that there is a two-tiered system in which the politically connected could get their traffic tickets fixed but the average person could not.
The report didn’t just touch on people working within the Traffic Court, but involved other judicial officials as well, including Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery.
According to the report, two Traffic Court administrators said in interviews with Chadwick Associates that they were in a meeting with William “Billy” Hird, a former director of courtroom operations who also was alleged to have fixed tickets, when Hird said he had received a cellphone text message from McCaffery asking Hird to meet with him. One of the administrators said he later learned that McCaffery’s wife, Lise Rapaport, had been found not guilty of a traffic violation that day, according to the report. The other court administrator, according to the report, told Chadwick Associates that Hird reported that he had escorted Rapaport into the building, “seen to it that she was ‘OK,’ and then ‘went outside and saw Seamus in the car.’ The administrator reported that Hird had told him on numerous occasions that he was close to Justice McCaffery, whom he referred to as ‘chief.’”
According to the report, McCaffery did an interview with Chadwick Associates in which he reported that he called Hird, who he knew from political campaigns, because he wanted to have Rapaport’s case assigned to an “out-of-county judge because it would be a conflict for a Philadelphia Traffic Court judge to hear Rapaport’s case. … Justice McCaffery said he did not know at the time that Hird was the key contact for politically connected individuals outside of Traffic Court seeking special consideration on motor vehicle cases.”
Hird met with McCaffery in McCaffery’s car until Rapaport returned from her hearing, according to the report’s iteration of McCaffery’s interview.
Hird’s counsel, Gregory Pagano, said there was no exchange of money in what is alleged to have occurred and, “I think it’s questionable as to whether it rises to the level of criminal conduct, assuming the allegations are true.”
Warren Hogeland, a senior magisterial district judge hailing from Bucks County, adjudicated Rapaport’s case, which involved driving the wrong way on a one-way section of Market Street in downtown Philadelphia, according to the report.
Even before Chadwick Associates’ report hit the street, Traffic Court Judge Robert Mulgrew and Lorraine Dispaldo, an aide to a state legislator, were indicted in a scheme to defraud the state Department of Community and Economic Development. They were charged with fraud in an alleged scheme to use state grant funds intended for community groups for improper uses.
Mulgrew has been suspended.
Another Traffic Court judge was barred from ever serving as a judge again after he was found to have shown photographs of his genitals on his phone to a Philadelphia Parking Authority contractor. The Court of Judicial Discipline said Willie F. Singletary brought the judicial office into disrepute in violation of the state constitution.
Singletary said he did not recall that the two photographs were on his phone, which was a fact stipulated by judicial prosecutorial authority Judicial Conduct Board, according to the opinion.
The opinion resulted in an unusual holding.
“We hold that a judge who intentionally grooms his penis for photography, and then intentionally photographs his penis for the purpose of display to others, had better remember that the photographs are in his phone lest they ‘slip out’ at some inopportune (albeit unplanned) time under circumstances which are likely to offend another person or persons, for, if they do, we will hold such conduct satisfies the ‘mens rea requirement’ so as to support a finding that the conduct is such that brings the judicial office into disrepute,” according to the opinion.
In a separate case from the Traffic Court, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Thomas M. Nocella was suspended in the wake of being charged on allegations that he violated both the state constitution and judicial codes of conduct because he did not disclose all of the details of the cases in which he was a defendant to a bar association committee reviewing his candidacy for recommendation to the voters.
One of those cases was the judge’s bankruptcy in which objectors argued the judge participated in an allegedly fraudulent scheme to sell a Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
In another rough moment for the Philadelphia judiciary, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Allan L. Tereshko resigned as the supervising judge of Philadelphia’s civil cases after he was taken to task by the Pennsylvania Superior Court for failing to disclose that his spouse worked for a law firm representing a defendant in a motor vehicle insurance case.
Tereshko did not disclose that his wife, Heather Tereshko, was working in Post & Schell’s professional liability department at the time that Post & Schell was representing the defendant in Barnes v. Westfield Group, according to the concurring opinion.
Tereshko said in an interview that he wished he had advised the parties in the case that his wife formerly worked for Post & Schell, the defense firm representing the insurance company in the case.
Family Court Woes End
A settlement put to bed one scandal.
The law firm and its ex-partner sued by the FJD for alleged legal malpractice over a new Philadelphia family courthouse agreed to settle the lawsuit for $4 million.
The settlement is global and covers not only the FJD’s claims against Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, ex-Obermayer Rebmann partner Jeffrey Rotwitt and Rotwitt’s corporate entity, Deilwydd Property Group FC LLC, but the cross-claims between the defendants.
Obermayer Rebmann agreed to pay $2 million, while the firm’s and Rotwitt’s malpractice insurer, Travelers, agreed to pay $2 million, according to the terms of the settlement.
Rotwitt is not making any personal contribution to the settlement.
The FJD filed the lawsuit in the autumn of 2011 because Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, as the guardian ad litem for the FJD and the liaison justice to the FJD, said that Rotwitt allegedly kept undisclosed to the Philadelphia court system that he got on the other side of the courthouse deal from representing the FJD legally as its tenant representative by becoming a co-developer.
The settlement “puts the whole thing behind us and lets us focus on the building,” Castille said.
Rotwitt said that he was proud to have made the courthouse happen as the court’s tenant representative because family litigants were “the least powerful constituency,” “the fact of the matter was that the conditions the court was operating in were deplorable,” and the state government had never before paid for a county courthouse.
In another positive development for family court, the state of Pennsylvania greenlighted an additional floor for the Philadelphia family courthouse that will unify the family court’s domestic relations and juvenile divisions into one site.
The floor will be located on the seventh floor and will be a shell to allow for expansion by the courts.
Less Massive Mass Torts
The FJD saw a dramatic drop in filings of mass tort cases in 2012. The court was projecting that 60 percent fewer mass tort cases would be filed in 2012 than were filed in 2011.
There were 2,690 mass tort cases filed in 2011, which was the continuation of an influx of cases that started in 2009 after Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe suggested that increased filings would benefit the court’s budget.
Court leadership projected in the fall of 2012 only 1,068 cases would be filed for all of 2012.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge John W. Herron, the administrative judge in charge of the trial division, said he hopes the message for 2012 is that plaintiffs lawyers have taken it to heart to file their cases elsewhere.
A conservative group advocating for changes in tort law, the American Tort Reform Association, even took Philadelphia off its “judicial hellhole” after placing the court on that list for two years in a row.
After putting out new rules for mass tort cases over the winter of 2011-12 because of the length of time it was taking to dispose of cases, including that one-fifth of the asbestos cases had not been disposed after three years, the court was seeing that 100 percent of asbestos cases resolved in 2012 resolved within 36 months.
After the plaintiffs bar asked the First Judicial District to rethink some short-lived mass tort rules, including the deferral of punitive damages, the program for mass torts once again allows punitive damages in pharmaceutical cases subject to the approval of the coordinating judge.
The court also officially adopted discovery rules written by the asbestos bar and the pharmaceutical bar.
The court maintained the ban on reverse bifurcation of any mass tort case and the ban on consolidation of mass torts, except for in asbestos cases or if both sides of litigation agree.
2012 also marked the fourth and the last year that Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Sandra Mazer Moss was the coordinating judge of the Complex Litigation Center, as Moss hit mandatory retirement age this year.
Moss said, “I feel like I worked my way out of a job” because the pharmaceutical bar is much less contentious now and now works together much more closely to develop case management orders, pick bellwether cases and to select cases for mediation.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Arnold L. New is now undertaking the dual roles as supervising judge of the trial division’s civil section and as coordinating judge of the center housing mass tort cases, appeals from arbitration and other cases.
The top civil verdict of the year was a $78.5 million medical malpractice verdict in the case of a child who has cerebral palsy because of a loss of oxygen during a delay in her delivery. The case was Nicholson-Upsey v. Touey.
Changes in Criminal
In a case pending in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Senior Judge Benjamin Lerner has been tasked to assess the adequacy of paying lead counsel in capital homicide cases $10,000 per case and penalty-phase counsel $7,500 per case.
The FJD’s Administrative Governing Board, which is made up of the president and administrative judges of each of the FJD’s three courts, raised the fees in the wake of a prior report by Lerner that the pay given to private defense attorneys for Philadelphia defendants facing death row is “grossly inadequate.”
Lerner said that the issue of fees for noncapital homicide cases is one area that also must still be addressed.
Starting with the new fiscal year at the start of July, the Defender Association of Philadelphia withdrew from multiple courtrooms in Municipal Court because the association said it has not received enough funding from the city of Philadelphia. Criminal justice leaders instead started using private criminal defense attorneys for indigent defendants in those courtrooms instead.
The court also got the Philadelphia executive branch to assume responsibility for the payment of private attorneys appointed in criminal and family cases. So, the Mayor Michael A. Nutter administration is now seeking proposals on legal representation in cases in which the Defender Association has a conflict.
Probably the most momentous criminal trial of the year saw Roman Catholic Monsignor William J. Lynn convicted of endangering a 10-year-old boy sexually abused by a priest who Lynn recommended to live in the boy’s parish.
Lynn is the first Catholic Church official in the country to be convicted of harming sexual-abuse victims whose abuse he was responsible for investigating.