It's with sound reason most lawyers practicing inside Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse adopt a submissive stance with the four men and one woman who sit on the bench. Like all federal judges, these individuals have been appointed to their lofty positions for life by U.S. presidents and wield tremendous powers. But the judges aren't robots rendering identical rulings. Their mindsets and personalities—which vary greatly inside this stately, 10-story, Santa Ana federal building—can sway the outcome of important criminal and civil cases. Indeed, it's not rare when judges privately cringe at a colleague's decision.
But there's one brave—or, arguably, foolish—lawyer I've witnessed defy conventional wisdom when it comes to genuflecting to a U.S. District Court judge: Michael P. Brown, a veteran, Seattle-based solo practitioner. Brown isn't one of those lawyers who arrive at court wearing torn sneakers and a wrinkled suit. The feisty, articulate UC Davis School of Law graduate resembles a high-priced, elite attorney who, as he has done, served as a clerk for two federal judges. He has built an impressive career specializing in retirement-benefits litigation and, in May 2012, received honors from California Lawyer Magazine and the chief justice of the California Supreme Court.
Half a decade ago, Brown took a case in Orange County that would put him on an ugly collision course with U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford, a 2006 George W. Bush appointee. Guilford's background includes a successful civil practice in Costa Mesa, where he earned a reputation for an endearing personality, keen intellect and a willingness to donate pro bono legal work for the indigent. He served as president of the nonprofit Public Law Center, as well as the State Bar of California. In his most publicized trial, former Sheriff Mike Carona's corruption case, the judge sent a much-needed signal to powerful politicians and police officials that slimy ethics risk serious prison time.
Despite both Guilford and Brown earning undergraduate degrees from UCLA, the roots of their clash can be traced back to 2008, when the Orange County Board of Supervisors implemented a three-pronged plan to shift medical-benefit costs from the county to nearly 12,000 government retirees. One of those controversial actions involved moving retirees from the same insurance pool used by younger, current employees. Supervisors said the changes reduced the government's substantial, unfunded liabilities.
The poster face of a runaway government-benefit system is Carona, who was arrested by the FBI and IRS at the age of 53 and got sentenced to prison for 66 months for cheating the public. The sheriff-turned-felon has never stopped receiving an inflation-adjusted, $21,000-per-month government paycheck—and won't until he dies. The same board that helped land Carona a sweetheart deal decided it had the authority to slash benefits for less-powerful, low-income retirees.
To Brown, the Republican supervisors' cost shifting wasn't just immoral. They also violated deals that enticed county employees to retire with certain guaranteed benefits in exchange for the workers giving as much as $200 million in past concessions. For example, under the new plan, retirees older than 65—such as plaintiffs Gaylan Harris of Mission Viejo, Jerry Jahn of Tustin and Jim McConnell of Huntington Beach, all of whom served the county for more than 30 years—saw a 50 percent increase in their monthly insurance premiums. According to Brown, the county breached a valid, implied benefits contract and committed illegal age discrimination by singling out older retirees for huge rate increases.
But Guilford doesn't see it that way. He rejects the age angle as meritless and says the county's contracts with employees did not contain clauses that block supervisors from altering benefits. At least twice he considered the retirees' complaints and dismissed them—but he allowed Brown chances to amend the lawsuit to address defects the judge considered fatal. The lawyer appealed; in a 7-0 vote, the California Supreme Court essentially gave Brown a third shot. In late April, the judge rejected the third amended complaint and a month later refused Brown's motion for reconsideration, writing “the interests of justice” required an end to the case.
The lawyer-judge clash developed into a bitter feud. Brown filed a May 13 recusal motion against Guilford because “any reasonable person” would “question his impartiality and his ability to fairly continue to preside over this litigation.” The lawyer's complaints included: the judge refused to consider material facts resulting in “clear error” in rulings; he unfairly “chastised” the attorney because another law firm called Brown's appeal a “victory” over the judge; Guilford mocked him being named California Lawyer of the Year as “some sort of award”; he scheduled a short-noticed 7 a.m. hearing in Santa Ana, knowing county lawyers were close but that he had to fly in from Seattle; and he “[applied] . . . local rules in [a] blatantly selective manner [that] is clear evidence of at least the appearance of bias in favor of [the supervisors].”
The recusal motion further declared, “Judge Guilford indulged in an extended tirade [during a May 7 hearing], leveling multiple charges against Mr. Brown. . . . Judge Guilford's harangue went on for as long as 45 minutes before Mr. Brown was not given an opportunity to respond.”
To the plaintiffs' lawyer, Guilford is callous to the plight of the retirees, as underscored by the judge allegedly prolonging a key decision in the case for 14 months while “nearly 1,000 retirees [class-action members in the lawsuit] died waiting for a fair hearing of this claim.”
I attended the showdown hearing and saw a peeved judge and an equally peeved lawyer. Guilford did not accept responsibility for any delays. He admitted he found Brown “superb in oral argument,” but he was troubled by the lawyer's attitude and conduct: filing an avalanche of unnecessary papers; sending an obnoxious email to his clerk; and calling the county's retained lawyers, including Jennifer L. Nock, “third rate” and their arguments “idiotic.”
The suggestion that likely unnerved the judge the most, however, was casting him as a snotty elitist. “In my years as a judge, no case of the hundreds of cases I have had has had a bigger impact on me than this case,” Guilford said. “I take the claims made by the plaintiff in this case extremely seriously. . . . I feel impelled to state that my great-grandfather came to this country as a janitor. . . . My father was a bus mechanic. . . . From personal experience, I am very aware of the challenges of people like my father to provide for their families, to provide insurance. . . . I want to make that clear. . . . I swore to uphold the law, and I'm doing my best here to uphold the law.”
Guilford declined to recuse himself; his colleague, James V. Selna, backed the decision. “Even if [Guilford's] remarks evidenced annoyance, dissatisfaction or even anger, it is clear that those remarks were directed to counsel and the innuendo that the judge was uncaring and callous,” Selna declared. “A reasonable person would not conclude [Guilford] was biased [in the case].”
On June 6, Guilford formally ended the lawsuit, declaring that the plaintiffs “recover nothing.” But the war might not be over. Upset that death has depleted the class-action pool by 4,000 people during five years of litigation, a relentless Brown is asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to quickly overturn Guilford's ruling.
This article appeared in print as “Two Angry Men: Federal judge and plaintiffs’ lawyer battle in county government retiree benefits case.”
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.