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Judge Gets Reassigned After Vowing to ‘Crush’ Litigant’s Lawyers

Jan. 29, 2021, 10:43 PM

A psychology professor will see her sex discrimination and retaliation lawsuits against two Texas universities revived after the Fifth Circuit said the trial judge’s inappropriate behavior indicated he prejudged her claims.

Among the inappropriate actions were a statement to Audrey Miller’s lawyers that he would “crush” them.

Miller, an assistant professor of psychology at Sam Houston State University, was removed from a faculty committee after disagreements with her colleagues. Miller alleges the disagreements were retaliation caused by her sex and complaints she raised about her clinical workload. Miller was also denied tenure, purportedly because of her lack of collegiality, and didn’t get a merit-based salary increase.

Miller sued SHSU and the Texas State University System for sex discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment. She also sued the University of Houston Downtown and the University of Houston System, alleging she was denied a position in Houston also because of retaliation. The two suits were handled together.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed Miller’s claims against the university systems, and ultimately granted summary judgment to the schools.

Miller’s cases will be revived and reassigned to a different judge because, from the outset, Judge Lynn N. Hughes’ actions in the cases “evinced a prejudgment of Miller’s claims” which would cause a reasonable observer to question his impartiality, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit said.

Hughes dismissed Miller’s claims against the university systems on his own initiative at the beginning of the case management conference, “countenancing no discussion,” the appeals court said. He made several remarks indicating he prejudged Miller’s claims, including responding to the parties’ agreement not to consolidate Miller’s cases by telling her counsel, “All right. I will get credit for closing two cases when I crush you.”

“How will that look on your record?,” the judge asked.

“And things went downhill from there,” the Fifth Circuit said. Hughes denied repeated requests for discovery and limited Miller’s opportunity to depose key witnesses. “To put it simply, the court’s discovery restrictions suffocated any chance for Miller fairly to present her claims,” the appeals court said.

“Fairness is upheld by avoiding even the appearance of partiality,” the Fifth Circuit said. “When a judge’s actions stand at odds with these basic notions, we must act or suffer the loss of public confidence in our judicial system.”

The opinion was written by Judge Cory T. Wilson and joined by Judges E. Grady Jolly and Leslie H. Southwick.

TB Robinson Law Group represents Miller. The state attorney general’s office represents the defendants.

The cases are Miller v. Univ. of Houston Sys., 5th Cir., No. 19-20753, 1/29/21 and Miller v. Sam Houston State Univ., 5th Cir., No. 19-20752, 1/29/21.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Flood in Washington at bflood@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com