A watchdog agency Tuesday publicly admonished an Orange County judge for what it deemed to be a lack of patience and making comments that gave an indication he was biased.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Derek W. Hunt, who handles civil litigation, was previously admonished for commenting in a legal newspaper about a case he had presided over, just as the case was about to be considered by appellate justices, according to the Commission on Judicial Performance.
The judge, through his attorney, Paul Meyer, declined comment.
According to the commission, in a case involving a construction dispute that had been pending for four years, a just-added defendant filed a motion to dismiss based on a claim of “untimely service” in June 2018. A hearing on the motion was scheduled for July 24, 2018, but two weeks prior to that, during a hearing on other matters, Hunt told attorneys he intended to rule on the motion to dismiss that day, the commission found.
When the attorneys said the hearing on the motion was scheduled for another day, Hunt said, “I was told they were advanced to today, and whether you like it or not, I’m going to deal with them, and you can figure out what you’re going to do with it,” according to the commission.
“Judge Hunt then stated his intention to grant the motion to dismiss without prejudice,” the commission said.
When he was asked by an attorney for the plaintiffs if they could file a motion to oppose that day, Hunt replied, “The way it works is, file when you can. I’m not going to turn it down. I start reading. And when I get bored, I stop reading. … Put the good stuff up front,” according to the commission.
After the opposition was filed, Hunt said he would take the matter under submission, but court records showed he granted the motion to dismiss, the commission said.
In another case involving a product-defect claim against Kia Motors America Inc., Hunt made comments critical of a plaintiff who had opted out of a federal class-action, which meant the case was sent to state court, the commission found.
According to the commission, Hunt believed the plaintiff’s case was still part of the federal class action and ordered the state matter to be put on hold for six months, even though the plaintiff’s attorney said the client had opted out of the federal case.
“You know what? I don’t care,” Hunt said. “This is going to be stayed. This is ridiculous. This is just an attenuating litigation where it needn’t happen.”
In May of last year, the Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned Hunt’s order, saying he abused his discretion.
In another matter, attorneys in a personal injury case said they had reached a settlement agreement, but had not completed the paperwork, according to the commission. A notice of settlement was filed, giving the attorneys 45 days to hammer out the details, but Hunt said he refused to wait that long and set a hearing for dismissal a week later, according to the commission.
The attorneys scrambled to file paperwork three days later and attempted without success to notify the judge but could not get anyone from his staff on the phone and were unable to leave a voicemail because it was full, according to the commission. Both sides attempted to call in by phone for the scheduled hearing for dismissal, but they were told it was not on the judge’s calendar.
But Hunt proceeded with the hearing on May 17, 2021, without the attorneys and dismissed the case, the commission found.
“As a result of the dismissal, the plaintiff was unable to recover the amounts to which multiple defendants in the case had agreed and was forced to settle with only one of the defendants for a nominal sum,” according to the commission. “Judge Hunt’s handling of this matter denied the parties a full and fair right to be heard and was impatient and discourteous.”
In another case in May 2019, Hunt presided over a hearing regarding attorneys fees. The plaintiff asked for about $165,000 in attorneys fees and costs.
Hunt awarded just $1,000 and provided no explanation for such a vast divergence, the commission said.
Appellate justices reversed the order in September of 2020, ruling he abused his discretion, according to the commission.