A ruling last month by the Pennsylvania Superior Court was seen as sending a message to judges on avoiding the appearance of bias. But even before ethics issues were raised, the Lomas v. Kravitz case had a long and tortured history.
In 22 years of litigation, judges ruled against housing developer James Kravitz at nearly every stage and chastised him as a serial abuser of the civil courts. The only thing he ever won was more time.
Here's an overview of what happened:
Dec. 1994 – Carpeting contractor Roy Lomas stops work on a new housing complex in Whitemarsh Township because he says developer James Kravitz has not paid him for $30,913 worth of work.
Sept. 1998 – An arbitrator awards Lomas $200,601.51, for the original bill plus interest and expenses. Thomas Branca is his lawyer.
March 2000 – Kravitz has appealed the arbitration ruling and begun shifting business and personal assets around. Lomas files a lawsuit to uncover where Kravitz’s money has gone and force payment.
Nov. 2001 – Branca is elected as a Montgomery County Common Pleas judge and refers Lomas’ case to another law firm. At some point, Lomas pledges to give Branca a one-third referral fee if they win.
Jan. 2007 – Before the trial begins, Judge Thomas P. Rogers discusses Branca’s role in the case with both sides. The referral fee is not mentioned. All sides agree to proceed with a non-jury trial even though Branca and Rogers are now colleagues.
July 2007 – Judge Rogers finds Kravitz liable for fraudulently dodging his debts to Lomas.
Sept 2007 – During the second phase of trial, to decide damages, Branca testifies and reveals that he has arranged a referral fee.
Oct. 2007 – Kravitz retains a new attorney and files a motion asking Rogers to recuse the entire bench and move the trial out of Montgomery County.
Dec. 2008 – Rogers denies the motion to recuse, disputing any appearance of impropriety.
April 2011 – Rogers rules on damages, compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees, interest, administrative costs and penalties. The award totals $1,688,379.10.
March 2014 – On appeal, the Superior Court rules 2-1 to affirm Rogers’ judgment and his decision not to recuse. However, they feel “compelled to comment” on Judge Branca’s actions, and “suggest that this type of situation should be avoided in the future.”
Dec. 2015 – On a second appeal, before an en banc panel of the Superior Court, Judge Rogers’ findings are again upheld. All eight judges agree that Kravitz is liable. However, the court splits 4-4 on whether Rogers – and the 25 other county judges – should have recused. Because of the split decision, the ruling does not set a precedent and is ripe for review before the Supreme Court.
SOURCE: Majority opinion by Superior Court Judge Jack A. Panella, Dec. 21, 2015