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JONES v. HIRSCHFELD

PAULA JONES a/k/a "Paula Corbin Jones," Plaintiff,
v.
ABRAHAM HIRSCHFELD a/k/a "Abe Hirschfeld," Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: PETER LEISURE, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Paula Jones, a resident of Arkansas, brings this diversity action against defendant, Abraham Hirschfeld, a resident of New York, alleging breach of contract. Three motions, filed in succession, are currently pending before the Court: first, defendant's motion for dismissal of the Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(c) and, in the alternative, for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (hereinafter referred to as defendant's motion for summary judgment); second, defendant's motion for recusal of the Court from this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 455; and third, defendant's motion for relief from his waiver of a jury trial. For the reasons discussed herein, the motion for recusal is denied, the motion for summary judgment is granted, and the motion for a jury trial is denied.

  BACKGROUND

  This case arises from the complicated and contentious proceedings surrounding the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones against then President William Jefferson Clinton in 1994 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas (the "Arkansas Lawsuit"). Fortunately, however, the Court need not unravel that Gordian knot in order to resolve the instant litigation. Instead, this case turns on contrastingly simple facts, which unless otherwise noted are uncontested, and elementary principles of contract law.*fn1 The origin and progression of the Arkansas Lawsuit, suffice it to say, attracted wide media attention. In October of 1998, while the district court's dismissal of the Arkansas Lawsuit was under appeal, Hirschfeld interjected himself into the fray surrounding that case by publicly offering Jones $1,000,000 to drop her suit against President Clinton. Thereafter, at a press conference held on October 31, 1998, Jones and Hirschfeld signed a written agreement ("October 31 agreement" or "agreement"). Under the agreement, in order to "underwrite" and "facilitate" the settlement of the Arkansas Lawsuit, Hirschfeld agreed to transfer $1,000,000 on November 2, 1998 to a trust account set up by Jones' then attorneys. This money, however, would not be disbursed "unless and until the Court of record and of appropriate jurisdiction over the Lawsuit so orders or otherwise officially accepts or adopts, on the record, a stipulation of settlement of the Lawsuit, so that the Lawsuit is and shall be discontinued forthwith and dismissed with prejudice." (Compl., Ex. 2.)*fn2 At this point the parties' accounts diverge. Plaintiff claims that although defendant did not wire the $1,000,000 to her attorneys' account, she nevertheless settled the Arkansas Lawsuit resulting in its dismissal in accordance with the October 31 agreement. As a result, she claims that defendant has breached their agreement and owes her $1,000,000 plus interest and costs. Defendant, on the other hand, claims that Jones was required to reject his offer of settlement during her negotiations with President Clinton and that, because of the importance to Jones and her supporters of obtaining money directly from the President, Jones, in fact, rejected his offer.

  In support of this contention, defendant has, in his prior affidavits to the Court, presented evidence that Jones rejected cashiers checks tendered to her by defendant both prior to and contemporaneously with the October 31 agreement. Jones hotly contests Hirschfeld's account regarding these checks; however, for the purposes of the instant motion, the Court need not delve into this aspect of the parties' dispute. Rather, what is undisputed on the present record is the following: (1) Hirschfeld did not wire $1,000,000 to Jones' lawyers on November 2, 1998. (2) On November 13, 1998, as part of the ongoing settlement negotiations between Jones and President Clinton, Jones' attorney, William N. McMillan, Esq., sent a letter to Robert S. Bennett, Esq., President Clinton's attorney, which stated, "This letter shall constitute Paula Corbin Jones' final offer to settle the [Arkansas Lawsuit] in the amount of $850,000." (Letter from William N. McMillan, Esq., to Robert S. Bennett, Esq., of November 13, 1998 (the "McMillan letter"), attached as Ex. C to Def.'s Opp. to Motion to Quash Subpoena and for a Protective Order, filed November 7, 2003.) This letter goes on to state, "I [Mr. McMillan] further represent to you [Mr. Bennett] that the money from Mr. Abraham Hirschfeld is no longer on the table and that there will be no payment from Mr. Hirschfeld as part of the settlement with your client." (Id.) (3) That same day, attorneys for Jones and President Clinton signed an agreement settling the Arkansas Lawsuit for $850,000. (See Stipulation of Settlement and Release, dated November 13, 1998, attached as Ex. B. to Def.'s Mot. for Judgment on the Pleadings, to Dismiss and for Summary Judgment, filed January 17, 2004. ("Def.'s 1/17/04 Summary Judgment Mot."))*fn3 The agreement states that it constitutes "the entire and only agreement between the parties and that it will be filed in open Court," and further that "the agreement of each of [the parties] to this Stipulation of Settlement and Release is not subject to any condition, and that the consideration recited herein is the sole consideration for the parties' agreement to this Stipulation." (Id.) Both the McMillan letter and its apparent rejection of Hirschfeld's money as well as the terms of the Stipulation of Settlement were widely reported in the news media. (See Def.'s 1/17/04 Summary Judgment Mot., Ex. C.; Decl. of Jonathan S. Jeffress, Esq., dated Oct. 14, 2003, Ex. 2; Aff. of Abraham Hirschfeld, sworn to on September 30, 2002 ("Hirschfeld Aff."), ¶¶ 5-6., Ex. 3.) Finally, (4) on December 2, 1998, as the result of the settlement agreement, the Eighth Circuit dismissed Jones' appeal. Jones v. Clinton, 161 F.3d 528 (8th Cir. 1998). Following the dismissal of the Arkansas Lawsuit, it is also undisputed that Hirschfeld never paid any money to Jones. According to Hirschfeld, however, no payment was ever requested of him. (Hirschfeld Aff. ¶¶ 4, 22.)

  Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on August 15, 2001. Defendant, who was incarcerated at the time, ultimately filed an Answer on November 14, 2001. In addition to denying plaintiff's breach of contract claim, Hirschfeld's Answer also alleges a counterclaim against Jones seeking damages for harassment and defamation.

  Following the close of discovery pursuant to the original case management plan in this action, both parties moved for summary judgment. Due to the dearth of admissible evidence presented by the parties in their respective cross motions, the Court granted defendant's request to reopen discovery in an Opinion and Order dated June 19, 2003. Jones v. Hirschfeld, 01 Civ. 7585 (PKL), 2003 WL 21415323 (S.D.N.Y. June 19, 2003). This decision also denied defendant's request for a jury trial, finding that Hirschfeld had waived the right to a trial by jury in this action and that there were no grounds for relieving him from the effect of this waiver. Id. at *5-6. With regard to the ultimate disposition of the case, the Court noted that this action "might well be appropriate for resolution at the summary judgment stage on a fully developed record" but that summary judgment for either side was unlikely in the absence of further discovery. Id. at *3. Thereafter, the parties did engage in additional discovery. Most notably, Hirschfeld obtained a copy of the McMillan letter and the Arkansas Lawsuit Stipulation of Settlement, which, inexplicably, had heretofore not been placed before the Court. The parties did not, however, promptly follow the Court's suggestion that they refile for summary judgment following the extended discovery period. Instead, defendant waited until after the close of the extended discovery deadline, the deadline for dispositive motions, and, indeed, the deadline for the parties' proposed Pre-Trial Order, to submit the instant motion for summary judgment. Although defendant cites no supporting legal authority, the thrust of his motion is that the terms of the McMillan letter and the Stipulation of Settlement require dismissal of plaintiff's contract claim.

  At a conference held January 20, 2004, shortly after the filing of defendant's motion, the latest in a long line of counsel for defendant, Salvador V. Delgado, Esq., was chastised by the Court regarding defendant's conduct in this case, including defendant's contumacious antics before the magistrate judge presiding over discovery disputes, his chaotic habit of alternating between retained counsel and appearing pro-se, and his total disregard for the Court's scheduling deadlines. Based on the Court's comments during this conference, defendant subsequently moved for the Court to recuse itself. In addition, defendant later filed a renewed motion for relief from his waiver of a jury trial.

  DISCUSSION

  1. Defendant's Motion for Recusal

  Because it presents a threshold issue as to whether the Court should continue to preside over this action, the first issue to be addressed is defendant's motion for recusal. Defendant argues that the Court should recuse itself pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 455, which provides in pertinent part, "Any justice, judge, or magistrate of the United States shall disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." 28 U.S.C. § 455(a). Defendant claims that the Court's conduct at the January 20 conference creates at least the appearance of bias or hostility, necessitating recusal. In support of this argument, defendant points to a number of statements by the Court both on and off the record during the conference, in which the Court allegedly expressed its bias against defendant.*fn4

  The Supreme Court has stated:
The goal of section 455(a) is to avoid even the appearance of partiality. If it would appear to a reasonable person that a judge has knowledge of facts that would give him an interest in the litigation then an appearance of partiality is created even though no actual partiality exists because the judge does not recall the facts, because the judge actually has no interest in the case or because the judge is pure in heart and incorruptible. Liljeberg v. Health Servs. Acquisition Corp., 486 U.S. 847, 860, (1988) (quoting Health Servs. Acquisition Corp. v. Liljeberg, 796 F.2d 796, 802 (5th Cir. 1986)). Recusal under this section, however, requires a showing that would cause "an objective, disinterested observer fully informed of the underlying facts [to] entertain significant doubt that justice would be done absent recusal." In re Aguinda, 241 F.3d 194, 201 (2d Cir. 2001) (Winter, J.) (quoting United States v. Lovaglia, 954 F.2d 811, 815 (2d Cir. 1992)). "Thus, the test to be applied is an objective one which assumes that a reasonable person knows and understands all the relevant facts." In re Drexel Burnham Lambert, Inc., 861 F.2d 1307, 1313 (2d Cir. 1988) (emphasis in original).
  Absent extreme circumstances, a judge's rulings or expressions of opinion generally fail to justify recusal. In particular, "opinions formed by the judge on the basis of facts introduced or events occurring in the course of the current proceedings, or of prior proceedings, do not constitute a basis for a bias or partiality motion unless they display a deep-seated favoritism or antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible." Liteky v. United States, 510 U.S. 540, 555 (1994). Thus, the Court is not constrained to mere gentle chiding in the face of deleterious conduct by the parties or their lawyers during a litigation. "[E]xpressions of impatience, dissatisfaction, annoyance, and even anger, that are within the bounds of what imperfect men and women, even after having been confirmed as federal judges, sometimes display" do not establish bias or partiality. Id. at 555-56. "A judge's ordinary efforts at courtroom administration — even a stern and short-tempered judge's ordinary efforts at courtroom administration — remain immune." Id. at 556. "Discretion is confided in the district judge in the first instance to determine whether to disqualify himself." In re Drexel Burnham Lambert, 861 F.2d at 1312. In making this decision, "the trial judge must carefully weigh the policy of promoting public confidence in the judiciary against the possibility that those questioning his impartiality might be seeking to avoid the adverse consequences of his presiding over their case." Id. "A judge is as much obliged not to recuse himself when it is not called for as he is obliged to when it is." Id.; In re Aguinda, 241 F.3d at 201 ("[W]here the standards governing disqualification have not been met, disqualification is not optional; rather, it is prohibited.").

  In light of these well-settled principles, it is clear that defendant's motion falls short of the mark. When placed in the context of the entire January 20 conference and in light of the history of this case as a whole, the Court's expressions of irritation toward the defendant and his lawyer do not manifest the sort of deep-seated favoritism or antagonism that would require recusal in this case. Rather, the Court's comments throughout this conference represent admonishments to the defendant to take the case seriously and cease his haphazard behavior. Indeed, as the balance of this opinion shows, had defendant made a genuine and competent effort at defending ...


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