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Batchelor v. Alexis Properties, LLC

Superior Court of Delaware, Kent

May 8, 2019

JANET BATCHELOR, Plaintiff,
v.
ALEXIS PROPERTIES, LLC, BB PROPERTIES OF DELAWARE, LLC, JOHN WELCOME d/b/a WELCOME HOME REALTY, and LIVEINDE.COM, INC., Defendants.

          Submitted: April 16, 2019

          ORDER

          Noel Eason Primos Judge

         Before the Court is a Motion to Recuse this Judge and the Commissioner, filed by Ms. Janet Batchelor (hereinafter "Plaintiff). Plaintiff, who is self-represented in this litigation, contends that the Court's interactions with Plaintiff in connection with her requests for accommodation for her hearing impairment, as well as the conduct of this Judge and of the Court's Commissioner during the course of various pretrial proceedings, [1] demonstrate a bias against Plaintiff and require removal of this Judge and the Commissioner from this case. Defendants John Welcome (hereinafter "Welcome"), Alexis Properties (hereinafter "Alexis"), Liveinde.com, Inc. d/b/a Welcome Home Realty (hereinafter "Liveinde.com"), and BB Properties of Delaware, LLC (hereinafter "BB Properties" and collectively with Welcome, Alexis, and Liveinde.com, "Defendants") have filed a response in opposition to Plaintiffs motion. Additionally, Defendants request sanctions against Plaintiff under Superior Court Civil Rule 11, alleging, inter alia, that Plaintiff has filed a meritless motion and is in contempt of the Court.

         This Order will address Plaintiffs claims involving this Judge, which include the allegations stemming from the April 2 and April 3, 2019, email exchanges between the Court and Plaintiff.[2] This Order will also address Plaintiffs assertions that do not involve any specific judicial officer, but instead deal with (1) Plaintiffs interactions with the Court regarding provision of services relating to her hearing impairment up to the time of the hearing before the Commissioner on March 14, 2019, and (2) Plaintiffs request that this matter be transferred to a judge of this Court sitting in New Castle County, Delaware, due to her belief that she "cannot receive a fair hearing or trial in Superior Court Kent County, Delaware." Finally, the Order will address Defendants' request for sanctions. The Court refers the parties to the Commissioner's separate order filed on this date as to Plaintiffs claims involving the Commissioner, including Plaintiffs allegations of prejudice and bias of the Commissioner relating to the March 14, 2019, hearing before the Commissioner. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiffs Motion to Recuse is DENIED, and Defendants' request for sanctions is DENIED.

         I. Factual Background and Procedural History

         On May 4, 2016, Plaintiff signed a rental agreement leasing certain property owned by Defendant BB Properties for the term of June 1, 2016, to May 31, 2017.

         Allegedly, Defendants later committed breaches of the rental agreement that caused Plaintiff damages and forced her to vacate the property. Thereafter, Defendants threatened legal action and then filed a summary possession complaint and a debt action. Plaintiff subsequently filed suit, alleging breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith, and malicious prosecution.

         On February 23, 2018, this Court denied a motion to dismiss filed by Defendants Welcome and Alexis. On August 30, 2018, Plaintiff was granted leave to file an amended complaint, which was subsequently filed on September 11, 2018. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on October 11, 2018, which was granted in part and denied in part on November 13, 2018.

         On March 14, 2019, a hearing was held before the Commissioner regarding various discovery-related motions as well as a motion filed by Plaintiff requesting leave to file a second amended complaint. In connection with her rulings issued at the close of the hearing, the Commissioner granted a limited extension of the discovery period.[3]

         On April 1, 2019, Defendants Welcome, Alexis, and Liveinde.com e-filed a Motion to Amend Scheduling Order (hereinafter the "Motion to Amend"). On April 2, the Court contacted Plaintiff via email to obtain her position on the Motion to Amend. Due to the time-sensitive nature of the matter, i.e., dispositive motions were to be filed by April 3, the Court was attempting to accommodate Plaintiff by allowing her to submit her response to Defendants' motion in email format, a practice not normally allowed by the Court. The subsequent email exchange between the Court and Plaintiff, which will be discussed in more detail below, is at the heart of Plaintiff s contentions regarding this Judge.

         On April 3, 2019, Plaintiff, via email, expressed her opposition to amending the scheduling order. Later that day, this Court granted in part and denied in part the Motion to Amend. The Court, in its Order, stated that it would "grant the request to extend the dispositive motions deadline to May 31, 2019" but that "[a]ll other deadlines in the current scheduling order, including the deadlines for motions in limine and responses to motions in limine, will remain in place." Plaintiff then filed the present Motion to Recuse, alleging that this Judge had allowed Defendants to file the Motion to Amend by email and had engaged in exparte communications.

         II. Discussion

         Judicial impartiality "is a fundamental principle of the administration of justice."[4] It has been well-settled in Delaware that judicial officers must recuse themselves if "there is a reasonable basis to question [their] impartiality."[5] The Delaware Judges' Code of Judicial Conduct sets forth a non-exhaustive list of situations where a judge "should" disqualify himself or herself, particularly where "[t]he judge has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party, or personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding."[6] However, the Delaware Supreme Court has stated that alleged personal bias or prejudice against the party seeking recusal is not an automatic basis for disqualification.[7] Rather, disqualification is only required where the alleged bias or prejudice of the judicial officer derives from "an extrajudicial source and result[s] in an opinion on the merits on some basis other than what the judge learned from his participation in the case."[8]

         In Los v. Los, [9] the Delaware Supreme Court established a two-part test for determining whether a judicial officer should recuse himself or herself where a party has alleged personal bias or prejudice. First, the judge must subjectively determine if he or she "can proceed to hear the case free of bias or prejudice concerning that party."[10] Second, even if the judge is satisfied that there is no actual bias, the judge must, nonetheless, objectively determine whether there is an "appearance of bias sufficient to cause doubt as to the judge's impartiality."[11] "If a judge's decisions or demeanor would cause an objective, reasonable, observer viewing the circumstances to conclude that a fair or impartial hearing is unlikely, then recusal is appropriate."[12]However, in the absence of any objective basis for bias, the judge need not recuse himself or herself from the proceedings.[13]

         In deciding a motion to recuse, the Court should also consider Delaware Judges' Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.7(A), known as the "Responsibility to Decide," which provides that "[a] judge shall hear and decide matters assigned, unless disqualified."[14] A judge has a "duty to sit" unless disqualified or convinced of the need to recuse.[15] Therefore, the judge should carefully consider the decision to recuse himself or herself, as granting such a motion "in the absence of a bonafide reason for recusal or disqualification, would be 'irresponsible' and a dereliction of the judicial duty to hear and decide matters assigned. . . ."[16]

         A. Subjective Analysis

         As to the first prong under the Los test, this Judge can unequivocally state, as did the judicial officer in BAC, [17] that I have no feelings of bias, prejudice, or ill-will against Plaintiff, and that nothing Plaintiff has done during the course of this case gives rise to any such feelings. Plaintiff alleges in her Motion that an ex parte communication took place between this Judge and Defendants, indicating bias against the Plaintiff and an inability to be an impartial decision-maker in this case. As will be addressed in more detail below, no such ex parte communications took place. Since I am persuaded that I can hear this matter without any bias or prejudice against Plaintiff, the first prong of the Los test is satisfied.

         B. Objective Analysis

         Under the second prong of the Los analysis, there is no objective appearance of bias. This Judge has not taken any actions with respect to the Plaintiff in this litigation, nor made any other decisions in this matter, that could create an appearance of bias or cast doubt on my impartiality. As no reasonable observer could conclude that I am biased against Plaintiff, the second part of the Los analysis also does not require disqualification.

         To the contrary, the procedural history of this case discloses nothing more than this Judge's impartial decisions on the various motions presented. On February 23, 2018, I denied initial motions to dismiss, thus allowing Plaintiffs claims to proceed. On November 13, 2018, 1 denied in part a second motion to dismiss, and I also denied a request by Defendants for costs and attorneys' fees based upon alleged bad faith prosecution of certain claims in the litigation.

         With regard to the particular matter concerning which Plaintiff accuses this judicial officer of bias, i.e., consideration of the Motion to Amend, the Court reiterates that it did not permit Defendants Welcome, Alexis, and Liveinde.com to file the Motion to Amend via email, nor did the Court engage in ex parte communications with those Defendants. Rather, the Court reached out to Plaintiff (in a communication that itself was not ex parte), after the Motion to Amend had been properly e-filed, to obtain Plaintiffs position on the Motion to Amend. The filing Defendants had represented to the Court that they had attempted to obtain Plaintiffs position on the Motion to Amend, but that she had not responded. By reaching out to Plaintiff via email, the Court was attempting to provide Plaintiff with an opportunity to state her position before the Court ruled on the Motion to Amend, particularly as there was only one day before the expiration of the dispositive motion deadline, and the Court needed to make a quick decision.

         The Court acknowledges that the email communication from this Judge's Civil Case Manager on April 2, 2019, may have created some initial confusion regarding these matters. However, the Civil Judicial Operations Manager, Ms. Mei-Ling Cosgrove, sent Plaintiff subsequent communications clearly explaining to Plaintiff that the Court had not allowed Defendants to email their motion nor had the Court engaged in ex parte communications with Defendants:

E-Mail from Adrienne Bailey:
Good Morning Ms. Batchelor-
On April 1, 2019, Mr. Huestis & Mr. Rushe[, ] attorneys for Defendants Alexis Properties, LLC, John Welcome, and Liveinde.com, Inc. d/b/a Welcome Home Realty filed a Motion to Amend the Scheduling Order issued by the Court.
The Court normally does not accept emails as official filings, however due to the timeliness of this matter, the Court is making an exception per Judge Primos. Please respond to this email no later than ...

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