City Judge Sherry Paty said Monday morning she was recusing herself from the controversial Pet Store case after Mayor Ron Littlefield tried to influence her in the case in a manner that was "improper, unethical and perhaps contemptible."
Saying she is a judge and "not an arm of the mayor's office," she said she was referring to an e-mail sent to her by the mayor to District Attorney Bill Cox.
Mayor Littlefield on Monday afternoon said Judge Paty participated with him and lawyers in the case in a conference call set up by her office after he had sent the July 1 e-mail.
He said, "If she was upset with me about the e-mail, she took a long time to say anything about it."
Mayor Littlefield said he was in Judge Paty's courtroom for a July 14 hearing. He said, "I was pretty prominent in the courtroom. If she was upset with me then, why didn't she call me up."
The mayor said he did nothing wrong in the case, saying he has written to judges before, including federal judges, about pending matters.
Mayor Littlefield said, "My main concern was that Judge Paty was being indecisive, and this case was dragging on without this company that has profited handsomely in our community having to pay these costs. I was concerned that the taxpayers not have to wind up paying them."
Judge Paty said she was out of town from July 1-8. She said, "The mayor sent the e-mail on the 1st of July and it was not received by me until the 8th or 9th. The conference call was requested by the attorneys and was had by telephone while I was out of town prior to the 8th of July. I had not received the e-mail prior to the conference call. Attorneys for both sides were present during the conference call.
"I did not request the conference call. Mayor Littlefield only appeared in court on one occasion for a limited time and never testified at the hearing. He did not hear any of the proof in this case with the exception of possibly 20 minutes on one occasion."
Judge Paty said, "There is a signficant ethical difference in having a conference call where all litigants and/or their attorneys are involved in the conversation. Ex parte communications are a totally different matter that is strictly prohibited. I am stunned that Mayor Littlefield has admitted to routinely writing letters to judges, including federal judges, while lawsuits are pending. Any judge will tell you that is improper.
"It would be interesting to see the mayor's letters to these alleged judges and to know what cases were involved. I would like to see if they contained the same effort to orchestrate their judgments as the mayor's email attempted to orchestrate mine."
Mayor Littlefield said in the July 1 e-mail, "I really need to talk to you about this situation. We must not have the McKamey Center holding the bag for all the expenses associated with the Pet Company's unacceptable conditions. I want McKamey to hold the animals until the bills are paid and I want the company to confirm with their own veterinarians that any animals that they reclaim are accepted as healthy. I do not trust this company. Ron Littlefield."
Judge Paty also noted that Mayor Littlefield issued an "open letter" to the community in which he was critical of delays in handling of the case.
She said she did not respond to the mayor's e-mail and did not have any direct contact with him about the case. But she said the recusal was necessary to avoid the appearance of a conflict on her part.
She said she regretted the extra delay and cost the recusal will bring.
Judge Paty said she will ask that a judge from another jurisdiction hear the case.
The McKamey Center had said it found deplorable conditions at the store at Hamilton Place Mall. It seized a number of animals and was asking the court to order that the store reimburse McKamey for $40,000 in expenses.
Several hearings had been conducted in the case with some issues still unresolved, including the requested reimbursement.
Judge Paty said the Constitution "and ethical considerations guarantee that judges must not be inappropriately contacted by any person in an attempt to unduly persuade, coerece, intimidate or orchestrate the final decision in any case."
Judge Paty said, "The Canons of Judicial Conduct require that a judge avoid even an appearance of impropriety."
She said the mayor "has demonstrated an improper, unethical and perhaps contemptible disregard for the separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches of government. I am not an arm or extension of the mayor's office, but am a duly elected member of the judicial branch of government.
"Mayor Littlefield has interceded ex parte in an attempt to improperly influence and to orchestrate the final judgment of this Court. Therefore, upon advice of counsel, Mayor Littlefield's e-mail addressed to me and his open letter have been delivered to the proper authorities for their review.
"In short, by the mayor's egregious conduct and improper action, he has placed this Court in an untenable position to preside over and to finalize the issues in this proceeding."
Mayor Littlefield said in the "open letter":
"Transcribed testimony from the original hearing has clearly established that the conditions existing at the Pet Company were hot, dirty and generally disgusting on June 15, 2010 - the date that animals were seized and removed from the premises. The Court has received evidence that the air conditioning in the store had been malfunctioning for three weeks, cages were in poor condition with cracks in the grates or trays that would allow urine or feces to flow down onto animals below and sick animals were not properly isolated or cared for. Specifically, the court records that “A German Shepherd was in isolation with no water” and that several of the animals tested positive for giardia – a serious and contagious parasitic infection.
"There are other charges involving violations such as outdated and mishandled medications, poorly trained staff, nonexistent training manuals and a general absence of management and care. The evidence supporting the 90 violations is compelling and recorded in graphic detail, yet there seems to be an air of acceptance and willingness to be intimidated by the company’s lawyers. I understand that the court must be careful not to discourage private enterprise or drive a company out of business. Employees who are attempting to protect helpless animals who have clearly been mistreated by a business in this city cannot be so timid. Where public health and the welfare of citizens and animals is involved, I must maintain that we should do the right thing in spite of corporate bullying tactics.
"Setting aside all the legal rhetoric and arguments about the exact wording of the definition of what constitutes “cruelty” and “neglect”, one fact is glaringly obvious:
The Pet Company was marketing sick and dying animals at their poorly maintained store in Hamilton Place with inadequate concern that they were spreading disease and disappointment among the citizens of Chattanooga.
"The McKamey Center is the city’s animal enforcement division. And is therefore, fully responsible for ensuring that the city codes for animal safety and welfare are adhered to by citizens, as well as corporations.
"If not for intervention by staff of The McKamey Center, the practice doubtlessly would have continued. Does anyone believe that the actions removing animals from the documented conditions by McKamey and the State of Tennessee (blessed by a local court) were excessive? Why then does it appear that McKamey is on the defensive and the company that permitted the conditions that led to the corrective action is being granted what can only be characterized as amazing grace and remarkable legal latitude?
"With all of this said, I must also note that the company is trying to avoid the cost of mishandling their responsibilities. Trying to paint themselves as the victim, the company is attempting to leave McKamey and the citizens of Chattanooga holding the bag for the $40,000 bill for housing and veterinary care for these mistreated animals.
"Any person who has ever loved an animal or had a child experience the death of a family pet or anyone who simply pays taxes and expects government to act when action is called for should not accept such calloused behavior from a private enterprise as “business as usual”. Our responsibility is to protect our citizens and where the health and welfare of our citizens is in conflict with the profit motives of a New Jersey corporation, I stand with our families."