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Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Whistleblower Case Reassigned Due To Judge Lynn Hughes Procrastination
Houston federal judge who has been accused of unfairly stalling a federal whistle-blower lawsuit for years has been removed from the case by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for ignoring its instructions.
In a rare move, a three-judge panel determined that the case should be assigned to a jurist other than U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes.
The appeals court concluded that Hughes would have "substantial difficulty in setting aside his previously-expressed views" and that "reassignment would be advisable to preserve the appearance of justice, given the long delays, repeated errors, and cursory reasoning in the district court's opinions to date."
The case was originally filed in 2006 in an Oklahoma federal court by two government auditors who accused Shell Exploration of fraud under the False Claims Act, which allows individuals to sue on behalf of the government. If successful, plaintiffs receive a bounty or a share of any money returned to federal coffers.
The workers, who were employed by the Minerals Management Service - an Interior Department agency - claimed that they discovered unauthorized deductions related to Shell's operation of offshore drilling platforms that bilked the United States out of at least $19 million in royalties from 2001 to 2005. (The government declined to join the lawsuit.)
The case was transferred to Houston in 2007 and landed on Hughes' docket.
In 2011, the district court granted summary judgment to Shell on the grounds that the False Claims Act prohibited the auditors from bringing the suit on the government's behalf as whistle-blowers and that the claim already had been revealed publicly.
The 5th Circuit reversed that decision in 2012 and remanded the case for a redetermination by Hughes.
Instead of complying with the court's order, Hughes granted Shell's 2013 request for a second summary judgment. In that opinion, the district court judge did not clarify why the original summary judgment was thrown out by the appeals court.
The plaintiffs again challenged the decision. This week, the 5th Circuit determined that Hughes should not preside over the case.
The Feb. 23 opinion further stated that Hughes "disregarded" the higher court's mandate on remand and concluded that his treatment of the case "might reasonably cause an objective observer to question [the judge's] impartiality."
When reached in his chambers Friday, Hughes declined to comment.