Fischler vs. Ehrlich – Should the Judge Recuse Herself for Expressing a Negative Opinion on Plaintiff’s Likelihood of Prevailing in Pre-trial Hearing?

This is an interim ruling concerning a financial dispute between Joshua Fischler and G.A. Ehrlich (1995) ltd. In response to a preliminary assessment that the case was weak, and plaintiff (Fischler) should post a bond to cover Ehrlich’s costs, should he lose,  In this instance, Joshua Fischler, Complainant in the case, has requested that Judge Michal Amit Anisman rules herself unable to hear the case due to preconceptions and that she should transfer the case to a colleague.

The bond decision is given here.

The judge’s ruling about reclusing herself follows.

Joshua Fischler has sued G.A. Ehrlich (1995) ltd (Ehrlich & Fenster Patent Attorneys) for failing to pay the issue fee of an Australian Patent, thereby allegedly causing them damage of 21,000,000 Shekels. For the sake of the court fee, Fischler sued for 5,000,000 Shekels.

In a pre-trial hearing, the presiding judge, Michal Amit Amisman, indicated that in her opinion, it would be very difficult for the plaintiff to prove his case. It was also decided that the plaintiff would have to post a bond to cover costs to defendant in case he lost.

The plaintiff has now requested that the judge disqualify herself from hearing the case due to having made up her mind in advance. He also alleged that the judge had suggested that a bond would be appropriate which the Judge denies, claiming that the defendant raised the issue of the bond.

The factual background

On 6 July 2017, Joshua Fischler sued G.A. Ehrlich (1995) ltd (Ehrlich & Fenster, henceforth Ehrlich) alleging breach of contract, for not registering his patents in various jurisdictions and thereby causing Fischler damage that he should be compensated for. Specifically, Fischler claims that Ehrlich did not pay the issue fees for a patent that subsequently lapsed.

On 1 November 2017, Ehrlich responded by denying Fischler’s allegations and alleging that Fischler was himself in breach of contract for failing to pay Ehrlich’s fees. Ehrlich claimed that Fischler had failed to pay the fee despite being warned of the consequences, and so could not come along with claims against Ehrlich.

On 7 February 2018, there was a preliminary pre-trial hearing, where the parties stated their cases. During that hearing, Ehrlich’s attorneys stated that they intended to request that the plaintiff deposit a bond (see page 6 lines 14-16 of the protocol).  After the parties stated their allegations, and after the court raised issues regarding the parties’ allegations, in a preliminary ruling, the court stated that “After the court explained the chances and risks in prosecuting the case and the problems anticipated in managing it, the court gave the plaintiff 14 days to consider and decide on whether to continue. Should the plaintiff decide to continue, the defendant would be entitled to request that a bond be posted”.

On 22 February 2018, the Plaintiff stated that they intended to continue with the proceeding. Consequently, on 22 February 2018, Judge Amit Amisman ruled that the defendant could request that Plaintiff posts a bond, and can make this request within 30 days.

On 21 March 2018, the Defendant requested that the judge oblige the plaintiff to post a bond. After reviewing the case and hearing from both parties, on 23 May 2018, the judge ruled that a bond of 50,000 NIS should be posted by the plaintiff to guarantee the defendant’s expenses should the defendant prevail. In her ruling, the judge stated that the claims could not be considered as totally groundless, but one could not, nevertheless, ignore the real problems that the defendant’s counsel had pointed out, since the plaintiff had not based his case on a legal obligation that showed that the service provider should have paid the fee on behalf of his client.

On 20 June 2018, the applicant submitted a further request in which he claimed that in the circumstances, there is a real danger that the court is partisan, since according to his allegations, in a string of statements, the court has indicated that it has already made up its mind. The applicant alleged that in the decision of 7 February 2018, the court threatened him by stating that if he continues with the suit, the court would give the defendant the opportunity to request that a bond be deposited. The Applicant also raised issues against the decision to require a bond itself. He alleged that this decision is a statement by the court concerning the likelihood of him prevailing, which indicates that the judge had made up her mind regarding the case, and so should disqualify herself.

The defendant claimed that the Applicant had not indicated real grounds for suspicion that the court had prejudged the issue, and had not concluded that the defendant was innocent to the extent necessary for the court to recluse itself. The defendant claimed that the job of the court is to review the statements of case and to get a general feeling for the case at this early stage, from the papers submitted, and this is what it did. The defendant also claimed that the court had not invited the defendant to request a bond as a threat to the applicant, but rather, in the hearing of 7 February 2018, the defendant themselves had stated that they intended making such a request and the court simply agreed to this request.

Discussion and Ruling

Section 77a(a) of the Law of the Courts states that:

(a) A Judge will not sit in judgment if one of the parties or the judge himself considers that there are circumstances that indicates a real suspicion of bias in managing the case.

In this regard, Bagatz 2148/94 Gilbert et al. vs. President of the Supreme  Court, p.d. 48(3), 763, 605 (1994) establishes a test for a real suspicion as follows:

The judge has reached a (final) conclusion regarding the matter under dispute, such  that there is no point in conducting the trial. The point is that there is no expectation that the judge will be impartial. The conclusion could be the result of knowing one of the parties in advance, or prior knowledge of the issue under consideration, such that there is no real likelihood that rational persuasion will result in a change of mind. Note: it is not enough that the judge should have an opinion. For a judge to be disqualified from judging a case one has to show a prior opinion, but that he has closed his mind and  is not open to reconsideration during the trial.

Similar things were stated in Appeal 7858/06 Walhorn vs. Narkis,. 31 July 2007:

It is not uncommon for a judge to express an opinion regarding the likely outcome of a case before him. If this opinion is merely  a presumption and the judge is open to accepting a different position, the mere expressing an opinion is insufficient for the judge to recluse himself from the case. It is not sufficient that the judge has an opinion in the matter in question. To be disqualified that judge has to have a preconception that is not open to change during the trial.

In this instance, the Applicant claims that there is a real likelihood of bias that disqualifies this judge, but the judge do not accept this claim.

The Civil Court Regulations 1984 give the court wide discretion at the pretrial stage. Amongst other rights, the regulations allow the court to order that claims be cancelled where the statement of case does not provide legal grounds for prevailing (regulation 100 of the Regulations) or to reject the charges for any other reason that provides a basis for throwing the case out (regulation 101(3). Consequently the court is allowed and is even expected to relate in a pretrial hearing to the apparent legal and factual problems inherent in a case as they appear from the Statements of Case. The Supreme Court ruled this in Appeal 10353/09 Shindleman vs. Bank HaPoalim ltd, 14 February 2012:

As known, the pretrial hearing is intended to clarity the point of contention and the way the proceeding should be conducted to make it as efficient as possible, to simply, shorten or deny the case, or to find a point of compromise between the parties, In the framework of the pre-trail hearing, the court can point out problems in a parties’ statement of case, and even ask leading questions if necessary. In this context, one must understand the court’s statements , which are in writing, where it states an opinion regarding the apparent likelihood of the charges and the defense working, with regards to the stage reached. (Appeal 1150/09 Zvi Zickler vs. The Week in Ashdod 22 March 2009 (not published). Here we are talking about an early stage of the proceeding, and the opinion stated by the court does not indicate that the court has locked its opinion and the final verdict is known in advance.  

In light of that stated above, there is no reason why an opinion expressed by the judge in a pre-trial hearing should bar the judge from trying the case. As stated previously, the job of the court in the pretrial hearing is to act to make the trail more efficient, and in so-doing, may point out flaws in their positions to the parties. This is how the judge acted in this instance. One cannot state that in this instance, the court has closed its mind and is not open to persuasion  by evidence to be brought by the parties. That stated by the court is only based on the statements of case and on the legal submissions at this stage of the trial, and cannot be understood as indicating that the court had reached a final conclusion

The allegation that the court had invited the defendant to request a bond is rejected since it is incompatible with the way the hearing was held. It was the defendant who in the pretrial hearing,  stated that they intended to request a bond be posted – see page 2 lines 31 of the protocol of 7 February 2018.  The court only gave their permission for this once the plaintiff made it clear that he wished to continue. In so doing, the court has not taken a position against the plaintiff and is not threatening him.

Contrary to the plaintiff’s claim, the court has NOT reached a conclusion regarding the likelihood fo the plaintiff prevailing in ordering that a bond be deposited “because the likelihood of prevailing are small”, but rather the court stated that the charges are not baseless, but one cannot ignore the problems that the defense indicated. These statements do not imply that the court has made up its mind regarding the merits of the case.

The remaining claims of the plaintiff regarding the 23 May 2018 ruling, are really an appeal of this ruling and should not be considered a ruling on whether the judge should recuse herself.

Judge Michal Amit Anisman, in interim ruling re Complaint 13934-07-17 Fischler vs. G.A. Erhlich (1995) ltd and Complaint 38720-10-15 G.A. Erhlich (1995) vs. Fischler, Fischler , 9 July 2018

COMMENT

This ruling, and that to require a bond was appealed to the Supreme Court.

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