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In re Disqualification of Todd

Supreme Court of Ohio

June 17, 2013

In re Disqualification of Sheward. Todd et al.
v.
Axelrod et al.

On Affidavit of Disqualification in Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Case No. 12CVH-011845.

O'Connor, C.J.

(¶ 1} Plaintiff William M. Todd has filed an affidavit with the clerk of this court under R.C. 2701.03 seeking to disqualify Judge Richard S. Sheward from presiding over any further proceedings in case No. 12CVH-011845, now pending in the Court of Common Pleas of Franklin County on a motion to hold Todd in contempt of court.

(¶ 2} Todd claims that Judge Sheward is biased and prejudiced against him. Specifically, Todd claims that Judge Sheward held a show-cause hearing "solely to harass" Todd and claims that at that hearing, the judge threatened to jail Todd's counsel for attempting to clarify whether the hearing was for civil contempt or criminal contempt. According to Todd, he has "never encountered a judge at any level who has been so openly and obviously hostile to a lawyer or a party" in his over 36 years of practicing law in Ohio. Todd's counsel, David Bloomfield, has also filed an affidavit supporting disqualification. Bloomfield avers that a reasonable person would "firmly conclude" that Judge Sheward has personal biases against Todd and that those biases will continue to prejudice Todd in proceedings before the judge.

(¶ 3} Judge Sheward has responded to the allegations in Todd's affidavit, denying any bias against Todd and stating that Todd's accusations are not supported by the underlying case record.

(¶ 4} As explained more fully below, Todd's affidavit is well taken. Judge Sheward is disqualified from the underlying case in order to "avoid even an appearance of bias, prejudice, or impropriety, and to ensure the parties, their counsel, and the public the unquestioned neutrality of an impartial judge." In re Disqualification of Floyd, 101 Ohio St.3d 1215, 2003-Ohio-7354, 803 N.E.2d 816, ¶ 10.

Background

(¶ 5} Todd filed the underlying action against his former law-firm partners, pursuant to R.C. 1776.63, for judicial supervision over the partnership's dissolution. After months of negotiations, the parties appeared to reach a settlement agreement; however, Todd claims that the agreement was never finalized. Todd states that after he became concerned about Judge Sheward's handling of the case, he mentioned to his former law partners that he was considering filing a voluntary-bankruptcy petition on behalf of the partnership as its dissolution partner. Defendant Brian Laliberte then filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to prevent Todd from filing the bankruptcy petition, arguing that the action would violate the parties' settlement agreement. Judge Sheward issued the temporary restraining order, which removed Todd as dissolution partner, prohibited him from taking certain actions, and required him to immediately turn over firm records to the new dissolution partner. Todd thereafter filed an involuntary-bankruptcy petition against the partnership on behalf of himself and others as creditors of the partnership. In response, Laliberte filed a motion to hold Todd in contempt for violating the temporary restraining order-not only because Todd filed the bankruptcy petition but also because he allegedly did not turn over the firm's records, as commanded by the judge's order.

(¶ 6} Judge Sheward held a show-cause hearing on April 12, 2013. At the start of the hearing, Bloomfield claims that the judge precluded him from attempting to clarify whether the hearing was for criminal or civil contempt. The transcript reads:

MR. BLOOMFIELD: Your Honor, before Mr. Laliberte begins, just so the record is clear here and understanding that you're apparently hearing the contempt hearing at this point, are you, Your Honor-
THE COURT: Mr. Bloomfield-
MR. BLOOMFIELD: Yes.
THE COURT: -sit down.
MR. BLOOMFIELD: Yes, Your Honor. Are ...

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