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What’s the Big Deal?

A Texas Tech University assistant professor sued a department chair for libel and recovered a jury verdict for $590,000 in damages. Unbeknownst to the professor, during the trial, the trial judge was offered and accepted an adjunct professorship at Texas Tech University’s law school. The trial judge granted the department chair’s motion for j.n.o.v. in part and set aside the award of $250,000 for mental anguish.

The professor appealed to the Amarillo Court of Appeals. Two months before oral argument, while the appeal was pending, all four justices of the Court of Appeals signed agreements to become adjunct professors at Texas Tech University’s school of law. In fact, oral argument was held in the law school’s courtroom. The Court of Appeals further reduced the professor’s judgment to $15,000, which Texas Tech paid on behalf of the department chair.

Upon learning of the five judges’ association with the law school, the professor filed a bill of review to set aside the judgment, arguing that the judges should have disclosed the association and been disqualified. The trial court, perhaps unsurprisingly, denied the bill of review, and the professor again appealed. This time, the appeal was heard by Tenth District Court of Appeals. It affirmed, holding that evidence of the judge’s and justices’ appointments “alone does not show wrongdoing or official mistake by the judge or justices. There is nothing in the record to suggest that the acceptance of the offer from Texas Tech School of Law to serve as adjunct professors influenced the decisions in the underlying case.” Sorry professor, move along.

Lexis subscribers can access the opinion at: Phelan v. Norville, 2017 Tex. App. LEXIS 6970 (Tex. App. Waco July 26, 2017)

Lexis Advance subscribers can find the opinion at:  Phelan v. Norville, 2017 Tex. App. LEXIS 6970 (Tex. App. Waco July 26, 2017)

Author:  Susan S. Bentley, Case Law Editor

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