Judge receives reprimand from state

Friday, December 3, 2010

One of Marshall County's circuit court judges has been reprimanded by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary for delaying an opinion on a case for nearly 11 years.

Judge F. Lee Russell of Normandy received a public reprimand from the Court of the Judiciary on Monday for his handling of a complaint for damages filed by David Reha, a Marshall County builder, against Tennessee Farmers Mutual Insurance Co. of Columbia, also known as Farm Bureau.

On Wednesday, Russell said he is not allowed to comment on any case that has been before him. Russell serves in Marshall, Bedford, Lincoln and Moore counties.

Russell presided over a non-jury trial in Marshall County Chancery Court on Nov. 12, 1999, when he took the matter under advisement.

A motion to ascertain the status of the case was filed by Reha's lawyer on March 12, 2003, according to a letter from Presiding Judge Don. R. Ash of the Court of the Judiciary.

Reha was represented by Lewisburg-based attorney Barbara Medley who said the 10-year, 11-month delay in ruling "is not at all typical for Judge Russell... I've been practicing before him for more than 20 years and he's a very fair and efficient judge.

"This is an isolated case," Medley said "Judges across the board will routinely take cases under advisement from time to time. That is not that uncommon."

Ash told Russell that a second motion to ascertain the case's status was filed by Reha's lawyer on July 23, 2009, "and as a result of that motion, you indicated to all counsel in a letter dated August 13, 2009, that you would enter a memorandum opinion and order in the case on Sept. 4, 2009."

According to the reprimand, Russell received a notice of a complaint by Reha from the Disciplinary Counsel to the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary.

Russell promptly responded, "admitted the facts of the complaint, accepted responsibility, and entered a proper memorandum opinion and order on October 12, 2010, 10 years and 11 months after the bench trial," Ash wrote.

Ash indicated that the excessive delay in the case was a violation of the canons of professional conduct that require a judge "to dispose of all matters promptly, efficiently, and fairly."

"Accordingly, this letter constitutes a public reprimand for your actions. In the future, you are to follow the Code of Judicial Conduct and to decide promptly the cases submitted to you," Ash wrote to Russell.

According to court records:

* Reha had an insurance policy with Tennessee Farmers Mutual, and while constructing a house in October 1996 for Rick and Jo Mary Sisk, structural damage occurred to the rear concrete block wall of the basement.

* The damage was repaired at a reported cost of $11,703.35. The insurance company offered to pay $3,900. Reha replied that was insufficient to pay for the loss.

* Reha's original suit requested a "bad faith penalty of 25 percent." The insurance company replied that the policy does not provide coverage for defective work of the insured or his subcontractors, and that David Reha LLC was not a named insurer under the policy.

* Columbia-based attorney Patrick Flynn defended Farmers Mutual and said Reha's "math claims are without credibility and reflect ... specifically ... on the unreasonable claim for damages." Reha alleged breach of contract.

* In April 1998, Reha agreed to settle for $13,000 and Russell's order dated Oct. 12 of this year was for an award of $10,300 to be paid by the insurance company to Reha.

"You have 30 days to appeal," Medley said. "Neither party chose to appeal... My client chose not to appeal because that [award] was fairly close to our demand."

According to the web site for Tennessee's Court of the Judiciary, only 13 public disciplinary actions have been taken against 12 judges in Tennessee.

Two of the actions were against Bedford County General Sessions Judge Charles Rich - one taken in October 2008 for signing orders in a juvenile court matter after he recused himself from the case, and another in August 2009 over an eight-month delay in a child custody case.

Marshall County Tribune senior staff writer Clint Confehr and Shelbyville Times-Gazette staff writer Brian Mosely contributed to this report.