It's every lawyer's secret fantasy: Don't just get angry with the judges who seem to screw you over constantly, get even. But while others were content to daydream about their least favorite judges in medieval torture chambers, Portland Social Security lawyer David Lowry took his grudge against Administrative Law Judge Dan Hyatt to the next level--by suing him.
Back in August 1999, Lowry filed suit against Hyatt in federal court, alleging that the judge had a bias against him that did "harm to his business reputation as an attorney."
As a judge for the Social Security Administration, Hyatt presides over many of Lowry's cases and has frequently ruled against his clients. Lowry sought to have Hyatt removed from his future cases, complaining that the judge used anger and intimidation tactics to shorten his hearings, wouldn't let him present evidence or cross-examine witnesses, and once told two clients that Lowry was a "poor attorney who does a poor job."
For his part, Hyatt claims that Lowry has a "disrespectful and contemptuous" attitude and says that the lawyer once went so far as to call him a "baldfaced liar" on the record, then retreat to the counsel table laughing.
"Dan Hyatt absolutely hates David Lowry's guts, and the feeling is mutual," says Tim Wilborn, another Social Security lawyer. "There's no good blood between the two of them."
Wilborn had few complimentary remarks about Hyatt, who has been sitting on the bench since the late 1990s.
Wilborn claims that he has "made a career" out of overturning Hyatt's judgments on appeal. As evidence, Wilborn points to one of his own cases where the government agreed to fine itself $1,575 after an appeals court ruled that Hyatt was guilty of "misrepresenting some evidence, improperly rejecting...testimony, and ignoring examining and treating doctor opinions."
"It's really important for claimants to be in front of someone who is fair," says Alan Graf, a lawyer who deals with Social Security claims. "Judge Hyatt's personal reactions to claimants and attorneys at times have clouded his objectivity and caused unnecessary suffering."
Graf says that almost all claimants seeking disability aid from the Social Security Administration are in dire straits financially and need money from the government right away. If the judge hearing their case makes a mistake, the sluggish appeals process could delay their Social Security checks by two years or more.
But unfortunately for Lowry, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals seems to share Hyatt's low opinion of him. In an opinion filed last month, the court poured cold water on Lowry's lawsuit, in the process implying that Lowry's problems had less to do with judicial bias than with "his losing track record." After demolishing most of his arguments, the Circuit Court judges ruled that the dispute lay outside their jurisdiction and dismissed the complaint.
In fact, Lowry has a history of tangling with judges. In his initial complaint, he also asked to have two other "co-conspirator" judges removed from his future cases. In 2000, Lowry pressed for a bias investigation of one of the "co-conspirators," Judge Riley Atkins, with unspectacular results.
Lowry can still lobby to have his case heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. Until then, however, he will still be presenting his cases before Hyatt with a smile on his face--and ice in his veins.