A new judge was recently assigned to a controversial lawsuit alleging breach of contract in Winnsboro after an attorney in the case accused two Fifth Judicial District Court judges of breaking state laws requiring the random assignment of cases.
Fifth Judicial District Court Judge Steven Dean was assigned to preside over the 2014 lawsuit, KT Farms and others v. Citizens Progressive Bank and others, according to a June 21 court order.
The KT Farms lawsuit involves a group of farmers who claimed Citizens Progressive Bank of Columbia breached a crop loan agreement with some $5 million at stake. Other financial institutions are involved, too. Citizens Progressive Bank's parent company, Caldwell Bank & Trust Co., as well as Commercial Capital Bank of Delhi participated in the loan at the heart of the dispute.
There are three judges in Fifth Judicial District Court, including Dean. The other two judges – Judge Terry Doughty and Chief Judge James “Jimbo” Stephens – have presided over hearings in the KT Farms lawsuit but recently faced accusations they “judge shopped” and avoided court rules requiring the random assignment of cases within the judicial district.
The accusations surfaced in a second motion to recuse Doughty from the KT Farms lawsuit. Monroe attorney Sedric Banks filed the motion June 19. At that time, Banks also filed a motion to annul a ruling by Stephens that denied Banks' first motion to recuse Doughty. Stephens denied the first recusal motion after presiding over a May 3 recusal hearing.
According to Banks' recent pleading, Stephens and Doughty erred because there was no court order filed, calling for a random assignment of judges. Doughty directly transferred the responsibility of presiding over his recusal hearing without a random draw for division by the Franklin Parish Clerk of Court's office, Banks argued.
“There is no random assignment order entered in the record,” Banks' memorandum stated. “The Clerk of Court did not and could not make such random assignment, unless and until ordered by a judge. The obvious is proven.”
The Franklin Sun visited the Clerk of Court's office and confirmed the court record does not include any court orders calling for a random assignment of a judge to preside over Doughty's recusal hearing. In the KT Farms court record, there is a March 20 order by Doughty setting the date for a recusal hearing, a batch of subpoenas filed by Banks, and an April 4 order by Stephens to continue to recusal hearing.
The state Code of Civil Procedure referenced by Banks' pleadings concerns the selection of a judge to hear a recusal motion in a court that has two or more judges. It states, “In a district court having more than two judges, the motion to recuse shall be referred to another judge of the district court for trial through the random process of assignment in accordance with the provisions of Code of Civil Procedure Article 253.1.”
State Supreme Court rules also call for the random assignment of pleadings to different sections or divisions of a court.
According to Banks' pleading, Doughty handed the case to Stephens as an attempt to fix the outcome of the recusal hearing.
“It is an ill practice, indeed, where both Judge Doughty and Judge Stephens knowingly violate due process and statutory law in order to fix the hearing of plaintiffs' motion to recuse before Judge Stephens,” Banks' memorandum stated.
Banks also argued Stephens should have disclosed possible grounds for his recusal from hearing the recusal motion in the KT Farms lawsuit in light of his ownership of stock in Caldwell Holding Co., the parent company of both Caldwell Bank & Trust Co. and Citizens Progressive Bank. Stephens did not disclose his stock ownership until after ruling to deny the first motion to recuse Doughty.
“Oddly, Judge Stephens did not see fit to disclose his stock ownership in defendant banks (grounds for potential recusal), until after denying Plaintiffs' motion to recuse Judge Doughty,” Banks' memorandum stated.
Two days after Banks filed the second motion to recuse as well as the motion to annul Stephens' ruling, Stephens signed off on the June 21 court order reassigning the KT Farms lawsuit to Dean.
“Due to nature of the Plaintiff's Motion, which accuses this Court of fraud and ill practices, as well as Judge Doughty, the best course of action is to assign these new Motions to Judge Steve Dean, Division “C,” Judge Dean being the only Judge left in this District that Counsel for Plaintiff hasn't accused of something, yet,” Stephens wrote in his court order.
Stephens did not address Banks' accusation that he and Doughty “judge shopped” by directly transferring the case instead of asking for it to be randomly assigned. Stephens' court order revealed he was aware of the requirement for random allotment of cases but noted there was no need for it since Dean was the last available judge in the judicial district.
“The Court hereby waives the requirement to draw for division, as Division “C” is the only division left,” Stephens wrote.