Facebook Friendship OK for Judge & Attorney

      FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – A $4.6 million judgment in a trade libel and defamation case will not be overturned even though the presiding judge was a Facebook friend of the winning party’s lawyer, a judge ruled.
     Bob Brewer sued Paul Evert’s RV Country in 2011, claiming that Evert and two of his employees tried to put Brewer, who ran a competing RV operation, out of business.
     He claimed that the employees spread rumors that Brewer’s company was being investigated by the Department of Motor Vehicles and that Brewer was engaging in bank fraud.
     Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Hamilton presided over the trial and disclosed to the parties at the beginning that he was friends with Brewer’s attorney, Jeff Hammerschmidt. Evert’s lawyers, Gregory Dyer and Michael Johnson, could have requested a recusal at that point, but failed to do so throughout the 16-day trial.
     After Hamilton ruled in favor of Brewer, Evert’s lawyers discovered that Hamilton had commented on a picture of Hammerschmidt’s family on Facebook, saying: “Nice looking photo of you all,” according to court documents.
     Dyer and Johnson claimed the comment showed that the judge and attorney were closer than the judge had disclosed. They requested a new trial based on an opinion by the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee of the California Judges Association that says a judge should “unfriend” an attorney who has a pending matter in front of him.
     Hamilton chose to disqualify himself from the case after the Facebook issue was brought up, and another judge later signed his ruling.
     Retired Judge Robert Moody was hired to determine whether Hamilton’s friendship with Hammerschmidt was a conflict of interest that would call for a new trial.
     Moody found that Evert’s lawyers could have had Hamilton disqualified had they done so at the beginning of trial. But the attorneys waited until five months after the tentative decision and one month after the final decision to do so.
     Because they waited so long, they waived their right to disqualify the judge, Moody found.
     Hamilton disclosed his relationship as required, but did not have the “obligation to disclose every detail, every facet, every nuance of that friendship,” Moody wrote in his ruling.
     In addition, the ethics committee’s opinion that a judge should “unfriend” an attorney appearing before him was advisory, not mandatory, Moody said.

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