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Mathis v. Huff & Puff Trucking, Inc. 787 F.3d 1297 (10th Cir. June 2, 2015)

Jun 2, 2015

Following a bench trial, a personal injury plaintiff appealed the denial of his motion for a new trial. Among other things, the plaintiff argued a new trial was warranted because the district judge’s law clerk had a conflict of interest, and the judge failed to adequately screen the law clerk. The Tenth Circuit disagreed. Acknowledging that provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct applied to law clerks, the Tenth Circuit held that no actual conflict of interest existed where the clerk’s husband attended the trial as an informal observer on behalf of a non-party insurer. The Tenth Circuit then analyzed whether the judge should have recused under 28 U.S.C. § 455(a), which governs judicial disqualification. The Tenth Circuit acknowledged that a clerk’s relationships or conflict of interest may be imputed to the judge and jeopardize the appearance of impartiality if the clerk is allowed to continue substantively working on the case. Analogizing to similar cases in other jurisdictions, the Tenth Circuit held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for a new trial where the law clerk’s husband had limited involvement in the proceeding, the clerk promptly notified the court of her husband’s involvement, and the judge screened the clerk from any additional substantive work.