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Judge Admonished for Pro Bono Threat to Lawyer (Corrected)

Nov. 19, 2020, 5:13 PM; Updated: Nov. 20, 2020, 3:56 PM

A General Motors LLC employee’s federal job bias lawsuit was properly dismissed because it was identical to a state court case she settled for $400,000, but the judge should have better respected her lawyer’s concerns with holding oral arguments at a law school, the Sixth Circuit ruled.

The judge instead canceled the scheduled summary judgment oral argument at Wayne State University Law School and ruled in GM’s favor on every remaining motion in Nosoud Alemarah’s federal case, the appeals court said.

GM was indeed entitled to summary judgment on res judicata grounds, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit said. The state court settlement was the equivalent of a judgment on the merits, the court said. And the claims in the state and federal cases were virtually identical, the court said.

And Judge Bernard A. Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan also wasn’t required to recuse himself from the federal case despite his display of negative emotions in response to a letter from Alemarah’s lawyer requesting any summary judgment oral argument be conducted in a courtroom, the appeals court said.

The lawyer told Friedman he was concerned about a potential “theater atmosphere” developing if oral arguments were presented at the law school, with the attorneys and judge being distracted by their efforts to help educate the students.

Friedman responded that Alemarah’s lawyer comments were “highly offensive” and founded on “uninformed assumptions.” He also questioned whether the lawyer appreciated his “professional obligation” and said he was going to ask the chair of the district court’s pro bono program to add the lawyer to the list of attorneys to whom pro bono work should be assigned.

The judge’s comments crossed the line from typical judicial admonishments, the Sixth Circuit said. But some of the comments didn’t reflect on Freidman’s ability to remain impartial and the threat of pro bono work was the sort of expression of anger or frustration that is understandable “in the context of the frivolousness of several of Alemarah’s motions,” the appeals court said.

Judges Alan E. Norris, Jeffrey S. Sutton, and Raymond M. Kethledge joined the opinion. Kethledge wrote a separate concurrence expressing sympathy based on his own prior experience as a practitioner for some of the reservations Alemarah’s attorney expressed.

Raymond Guzall III of Farmington Hills, Mich., represented Alemarah. Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart PC represented GM.

The case is Alemarah v. Gen. Motors, LLC, 2020 BL 448002, 6th Cir., No. 20-1346, 11/18/20.

(Corrects Nov. 19 story to accurately reflect plaintiff's pronouns.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Nicholas Datlowe at ndatlowe@bloomberglaw.com

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