In Metro’s appeal of the outcome in the much-publicized Juana Villegas case, its attorneys question the judge’s alleged “pattern of unjustified animosity toward” Metro as a key leg to its argument.
U.S. District Court Judge William Haynes has a “history of an adversarial relationship with Metro attorneys,” according to a Metro brief filed March 30, kicking off its appeal in the polarizing case that pitted the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office against immigrant advocates.
Further, Metro claims Haynes exhibited “unfair treatment” and an “increasingly threatening tone” to Metro lawyers before he reached his verdict nearly one year ago.
Villegas is the undocumented Mexican mother of four, whom the sheriff’s office detained in 2008 as part of its implementation of the federal 287(g) program following a routine traffic stop in Berry Hill. She subsequently went into labor and was shackled to a hospital bed in the hours before and after childbirth, triggering a lawsuit against Metro that garnered national attention.
Haynes, the federal judge, granted summary judgment last April in favor of Villegas, the plaintiff, ruling that the sheriff office’s actions violated her civil rights granted in the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. In August, a seven-member jury awarded Villegas $200,000 in damages, far less than the $1.2 million her lawyers sought. Nonetheless, Metro had decided months before that it would appeal.
“When the summary judgment came down, we were going to appeal it anyway,” Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall said at the time.
Metro’s formal appeal in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals arrived late Friday in the form of a 74-page brief. Villegas’ attorneys have until May 2 to reply.
Attorney Phillip Cramer, representing Villegas, told The City Paper his response would be addressed in the forthcoming brief.
Metro cites two previous cases — one in 2008, the other in 2009 — to suggest Haynes has a track record of hostility toward Metro. Both cases represent instances in which Haynes set aside prior jury rulings that had favored Metro after finding Metro attorneys had engaged in “misconduct.”
The recently filed Metro brief also points to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ “unusual decision” in 2010 to reassign Haynes from a case that challenged Tennessee’s TennCare program, John B. v. Goetz.
“For years, this District Court judge has improperly attacked the motives of Metro attorneys and accused them of misconduct,” Metro’s appellate brief in the Villegas case reads. “And the District Judge’s treatment of Metro’s counsel has been patently unfair.”
The brief discusses moments of friction between Haynes and lead Metro attorney on the Villegas case, Kevin Klein, during last summer’s trial. In one instance, Haynes interrupted one of the plaintiff’s witnesses to clarify a statement.
“[The witness] then provided further clarification in response to the Judge’s comments, to which Mr. Klein innocuously said ‘thank you for that clarification,’ ” Metro’s brief reads. “Judge Haynes then sent the jury out and reprimanded Mr. Klein for attempting to ‘curry favor with the jury.’ ”
Metro’s targeting of Haynes in its appeal was perhaps predicable. In fact, Metro attorneys asked Haynes to recuse himself on the first day of the August trial.
Some courtroom observers came away with the feeling that Metro’s legal team actively tried to antagonize Haynes.
Haynes, according to an August Nashville Scene account, had described Klein’s actions as “mystifying.” Haynes’ April summary judgment had prohibited any mention of Villegas’ illegal immigration status, yet Klein repeatedly alluded to the issue. Rebuked for crossing that line, Metro attorneys were left targeting the credibility of Villegas herself, which drew further criticism from Haynes.
In making its appeal, Metro has also tried to raise arguments that didn’t find traction in Haynes’ court.
The brief takes exception with Haynes’ decision to exclude testimony from two Metro witnesses, including Bennett Spetalnick, director of obstetrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Spetalnick had opined that the shackles placed on Villegas “did not enhance [Villegas’] medical risks nor did she suffer excessive pain,” according to the Metro brief.
Metro also claims Haynes improperly excluded evidence regarding Villegas’ threatened deportation, which Metro claims was her real “source of depression and anxiety,” as opposed to her being shackled before giving birth. The judge excluded Metro’s expert neuropsychologist who had supported this claim.