Party Seeks Ramos' Recusal in Horace Mann Suit

, Commercial Litigation Insider

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Lawyers at Patton Boggs have asked Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Charles Ramos (See Profile) to recuse himself from an insurance dispute arising out of Horace Mann School's settlement of sexual abuse claims by former students, saying that his status as an alumnus "casts doubt" on his impartiality.

The elite Bronx college preparatory school, rocked by revelations in the past year that students were sexually abused by certain teachers and administrators between the 1960s and 1990s, is suing several insurers who have refused to indemnify it for a $1.05 million settlement reached with two of those students, plus defense costs and legal fees.

A motion for "discretionary recusal" filed last week on behalf of Granite State Insurance, New Hampshire Insurance and AIG Claims stated that attorneys recently learned Ramos graduated from Horace Mann in 1959.

While conceding that the connection alone is "insufficient to warrant mandatory recusal," the motion argued the judge's affiliation "may cast doubt on your impartiality and could call into question the propriety of this Court's future rulings in this matter."

"Regardless of whether Your Honor possesses any actual bias—for or against Horace Mann—the suspicions of the public are evident," the motion continued, in the case, Horace Mann School v. Granite State Insurance, 652752/2013.

Ramos, who sits in the Commercial Division, has presided over this case since August 2013. The insurers asked him to voluntarily recuse during a Jan. 30 conference call between the parties and chambers. On Feb. 4, the judge's law secretary informed the parties that any request for recusal must be made via a formal motion.

In motion papers filed Feb. 7, Patton Boggs said it received an email Jan. 24 from a purported former Horace Mann student suggesting that Ramos was possibly an alumnus. The attorneys said they confirmed that fact four days later. Within days, Patton Boggs said news media began asking whether the firm would seek the judge's recusal.

Patton Boggs pointed to the media scrutiny as warranting the judge's recusal so as to "avoid even the appearance of partiality."

Judges in New York have sole discretion to recuse themselves from a case unless there are grounds for mandatory disqualification. Patton Boggs conceded it has no information to support an automatic recusal, triggered when a judge is a party to the action, related to a party, served as counsel to a party, or has a specific interest in the case.

Schulte Roth & Zabel, counsel to Horace Mann, indicated it would not seek recusal, according to the motion. Neither Howard Epstein, a partner at Schulte Roth, nor Mark Errico, a partner at Patton Boggs, responded to requests for comment.

Ramos must enter a decision on the motion soon—oral arguments on summary judgment from both sides are scheduled for Feb. 27.

The dispute arose from Horace Mann's settlement with two former students in the course of a March 2013 mediation concerning allegations of sexual misconduct perpetrated in the 1990s.

The insurers, referring to the proceeding as producing "stealth, yet inflated settlements of the stale claims," contend they have no duty to indemnify the school since no judge made a finding of liability, and that they did not consent to the settlement since the claims are time-barred by a three-year statute of limitations.

Horace Mann countered that the claims are permitted through equitable estoppel, which tolls the statute of limitations.

The insurers also claim they were prohibited from attending mediation proceedings because they refused to consent to Horace Mann's "overbroad confidentiality terms" which would have prohibited the insurers from using basic claim information arising from these talks for future litigation.

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