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Sahu v. Union Carbide Corp.

February 11, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John F. Keenan, United States District Judge

Memorandum Opinion and Order

Before the Court is Plaintiffs' motion requesting reassignment of this case to another judge in the Southern District of New York, or, in the alternative, referral of the pending summary judgment motion to a Magistrate Judge for the issuance of a Report and Recommendation. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs' motion is denied.

I. Background

Since 1985, this Court has presided over a significant number of cases involving Union Carbide's operations in Bhopal, India, including: the multi-district litigation stemming from the disastrous 1984 gas leak, see In re Union Carbide Corp. Gas Plant Disaster at Bhopal, India in Dec., 1984, 634 F. Supp. 842 (S.D.N.Y. 1986), aff'd as modified, 809 F.2d 195 (2d Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 871 (1987); a putative class action concerning site-based and groundwater pollution in and around the Bhopal plant, see, e.g., Bano v. Union Carbide Corp., No. 99 Civ. 11329, 2005 WL 2464589 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 5, 2005), aff'd, 198 F. App'x 32 (2d Cir. 2006); and the instant litigation, which also raises pollution claims. Familiarity with the history of this case is presumed. See, e.g., Sahu v. Union Carbide Corp., 418 F. Supp. 2d 407 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) ("Sahu I"); Sahu v. Union Carbide Corp., No. 04 Civ. 8825, 2006 WL 3377577 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 20, 2006) ("Sahu II"), rev'd, 548 F.3d 59 (2d Cir. 2008) (reversing and remanding decision to convert motion to dismiss to motion for summary judgment where Court gave Plaintiffs insufficient notice); Sahu v. Union Carbide Corp., 262 F.R.D. 308 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (Rule 56(f) discovery order).

II. Discussion

The Local Rules confer on the Court broad discretion to transfer a case to another district judge on consent, upon taking Senior status, or "in the interest of justice or sound judicial administration." S.D.N.Y. Local R. 16, 17, 22 for the Division of Business Among District Judges. The Local Rules do not confer any rights on litigants, and instead are intended to govern the internal distribution of cases among judges. See United States v. Pescatore, No. 05 Cr. 128, 2006 WL 47451, at *6 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 5, 2006) (denying reassignment because Local Rules provide no legal basis for making the motion).

Therefore, a motion for reassignment is generally addressed to the appellate court, which may reassign a case to another district judge on remand. In deciding whether "unusual" circumstances exist such that a case should be reassigned, the Court considers:

(1) whether the original judge would reasonably be expected upon remand to have substantial difficulty in putting out of his or her mind previously-expressed views or findings determined to be erroneous or based on evidence that must be rejected, (2) whether reassignment is advisable to preserve the appearance of justice, and (3) whether reassignment would entail waste and duplication out of proportion to any gain in preserving the appearance of fairness.

Mackler Prods., Inc. v. Cohen, 225 F.3d 136, 147 (2d Cir. 2000) (quoting United States v. Robin, 553 F.2d 8, 10 (2d Cir. 1977) (per curiam)).

The procedural posture of this motion is somewhat backwards. Plaintiffs have never requested reassignment from the Second Circuit, nor has the appellate court acted to reassign the case sua sponte. Instead, Plaintiffs ask the Court to apply the Second Circuit's test in Robin to itself and make a self-determination that reassignment is required to preserve the appearance of justice. Although the ruling on this motion is necessarily subjective, after careful consideration, the Court declines to exercise its discretion as provided in the Local Rules, and additionally finds that the factors the Second Circuit would consider if it were to decide the motion do not necessitate reassignment.

A. Previously Expressed Views and Findings

In Robin, the Court explained that "[w]here a judge has made detailed findings based on evidence erroneously admitted or factors erroneously considered, the circumstances sometimes are such that upon remand he or she either cannot reasonably be expected to erase the earlier impressions from his or her mind or may tend to lean over backwards or overreact in an effort to be fair and impartial." 553 F.2d at 10. In order to determine whether the judge's previously expressed views are so insurmountable as to warrant reassignment, the Court considers "the nature of the proceeding, the firmness of the judge's earlier expressed views or findings, and the reasons for the reversal." Id.

Plaintiffs argue that the appellate record in this case and in Bano indicate that the Court will adhere to its "firmly held views" of the case and will not properly consider the summary judgment motion on remand. As an initial matter, the Court notes that none of its factual findings have been "determined to be erroneous or based on evidence that must be rejected." Although decisions in Bano and the instant action have been appealed several times, the Second Circuit ultimately affirmed the dismissal of the Bano plaintiffs' claims in their entirety, Bano v. Union Carbide Corp., 198 F. App'x 32 (2d Cir. 2006), and has taken no position on the substantive analysis underlying this Court's summary judgment dismissal in Sahu. Plaintiffs mischaracterize the appellate court's ruling in Sahu as one that vacated the District Court dismissal because it ruled based on evidence it should not have considered. However, the Second Circuit reversed Sahu on the technical ground that Plaintiffs should have received "further notice" that the Court intended to convert the motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment. It made no comment on the merits, and even twice stated that the question of adequate notice was a "close case." Sahu, 548 F.3d at 67, 70. Although there have been reversals, the appellate record fails to demonstrate that the Court has such "firmly held views" of the evidence or of the merits of Plaintiffs' claims that it cannot fairly decide the summary judgment motion on remand.

Next, Plaintiffs argue that in deciding the summary judgment motions, the Court made factual findings based on a limited record which it will not be able to overcome when evaluating the newly expanded record supporting the motion on remand. Although Plaintiffs characterize the record up to this point as "limited," they neglect to mention that the dismissal was based on the fact that the documents cited in their own complaint contradicted their claims. The Court came to this conclusion twice, without the constraint of the law of the case doctrine, and only "after renewed, independent consideration of the complaint." Sahu, 262 F.R.D. at 313 n.2. Moreover, the Court granted Plaintiffs' motion under Rule 56(f) for a stay of the summary judgment motion on remand pending further discovery, finding that "[t]he Court recognizes, however, that Plaintiffs can overcome these contradictions, and with them Defendants' summary judgment argument, by obtaining documents that actually support their claims as expressed in the complaint." Id. at 313. The Court could not have more plainly stated its ...

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