Judge in Chen v. Medina case recuses himself

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Jeffrey Chen

By Sue Misao
Northwest Asian Weekly

In response to an order for a new trial in his racial discrimination case against the City of Medina and former Medina City Manager Donna Hanson, former Medina police chief Jeffrey Chen filed a motion on Oct. 31 requesting that Judge Thomas S. Zilly recuse himself. Eight days later, Judge Zilly did just that.

In March 2013, Chen won his case, in which he claimed his 2011 firing by Hanson was racially motivated. The City had claimed that his dismissal was due to the results of an investigation that found Chen guilty of dishonesty, abuse of his position as chief, unauthorized removal and/or destruction of public records, improper access of city records, improper access of the city’s e-mail archives, and loss of confidence by subordinate officers. The jury agreed with Chen, who was awarded $2 million in damages.

Five months later, on Aug. 23, Judge Zilly vacated the award, saying Chen’s “evidence of discrimination in this matter is virtually nonexistent,” and that Chen’s attorney violated certain court rulings by improperly exposing the jury to evidence that wasn’t admissible. Despite his “deep respect for the jury process,” Judge Zilly ordered a new trial, saying it was “required to prevent a miscarriage of justice.”

Chen said he was stunned by the decision. “How many times do we have to go through the trial?” he asked. “Until we lose? Is that justice?”

In his request for the judge’s recusal, Chen stated it was clear that Judge Zilly’s decisions “show animosity for both me and my counsel of choice. It was clear that Judge Zilly could not see the real Donna Hanson, but the jury could. There is no possible way that I can receive a fair, impartial, and unbiased trial based upon these circumstances as outlined in the August 23, 2013 order.”

In response, Judge Zilly stated that although he “did not exhibit the type of favoritism or antagonism that would mandate recusal,” he also had a “strong belief that no party or attorney should be compelled to trial while believing that the Court is less than impartial.” He directed the cllerk to randomly reassign the case to another judge.

Originally scheduled for Feb. 3, the new trial has been moved to April and will be presided over by Judge John C. Coughenour.

Although Chen said he was very disappointed by the reversal, he is optimistic about the new trial. “I and my legal team are looking aggressively forward to pursuing it again,” he said. “I’ve been wronged from day one.”

Suzanne Kelly Michael, attorney at Michael & Alexander, which is representing both the City of Medina and Donna Hanson, had no comment on the case. “While things are in litigation, it is not appropriate for us to be commenting at all,” said Michael. “We are certainly confident that the jury will do the right thing this time,” she added. (end)

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