The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has publicly admonished a Victoria state district judge, after he had ex parte communications with a lawyer about an attorney fee dispute in which the judge later awarded that attorney $45,000.
The background to the admonition of 267th District Judge Juergen “Skipper” Koetter, which the commission released Sept. 23, is as follows, according to the document.
Attorney O.F. Jones filed a lawsuit against former client Richard Whatley to recover attorney fees. Koetter awarded a take-nothing judgment, which Jones appealed to Corpus Christi’s 13th Court of Appeals. The 13th Court reversed and remanded the case. Koetter awarded Jones $40,000 in attorney fees, but he later reduced that amount to $26,694.
Whatley filed a motion for new trial, but he withdrew that motion and offered to pay the $26,694. In response, Jones indicated he wanted a new trial because he believed he was entitled to more money from Whatley.
Koetter later granted the new trial. Jones then sent a letter to Whatley’s attorney, Jerry L. Clark, indicating that he’d had ex parte communication with Koetter about mediating the case.
“He told me to tell you he was inclined to sign a judgment that would provide me with a larger amount than he had previously,” the letter stated.
Clark objected to the ex parte communication and requested a meeting with Koetter before the case was set for trial.
The next day, Jones notified Clark that Koetter signed a $45,000 judgment awarding Jones attorney fees.
Whatley appealed the judgment, which the 13th Court reversed and remanded to Koetter, after finding he had no authority to make the award without affording Whatley the right to be heard.
In his written responses to the commission, Koetter acknowledged the ex parte "conversations" with Jones and explained that his $45,000 judgment was based on his opinion and the evidence that had been presented by the parties in the case, who’d been asked to submit briefs and any additional evidence.
The commission concluded in its admonition “that Judge Koetter engaged in an improper ex parte communication with Jones concerning a contested issue in a pending case, which resulted in the entry of a judgment in favor of Jones without affording Whatley the right to be heard.”
“In reaching its decision, the Commission took into account the fact that Judge Koetter had been sanctioned previously for engaging in similar conduct,” the admonition continues.
Koetter, Jones and Clark did not immediately return calls for comment.
Tom Cunningham, a partner in Houston’s Cunningham Darlow who chairs the commission, declines comment about the admonition.
-- John Council