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Cold Hard Realities of Bringing a Lawsuit in a Small Town: When Does Bias Exist?

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

Street with different colored buildings (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

This post should not be construed as legal advice.

From time-to-time, I like to highlight recent court cases from other states when I think they have implications for Maryland producers. A recent court decision out of Washington state highlights what many people who live in rural areas know: Everybody knows everybody. While this is a reality of rural life, can it impact the ability of judges and others to be impartial when making a decision on a case?


In Garrett Ranches LLC v. Larry Honn Family LLC, the Honns were appealing an arbitration award in favor of Garrett. The Garretts and the Honns were in a dispute over a cash rent farm lease and an option to purchase. The lease contained an arbitration clause allowing each party to appoint an arbitrator, and the two arbitrators to appoint a third arbitrator. In this case, the two arbitrators could not agree on a third arbitrator and a judge had to do so. Before appointing the third arbitrator, the judge gave the parties two more weeks and told them the name of the person he would appoint if the arbitrators could not make a decision.

Shortly after learning who the judge would appoint, the Honns learned the proposed third arbitrator had been a member of the Garretts’ attorneys’ law firm till 2009. The Honns moved to reconsider the appointment of the third arbitrator because of a potential conflict of interest. The judge denied the motion because in the judge’s opinion, since leaving the Garretts’ attorneys’ firm, the proposed arbitrator and Garretts’ attorneys had appeared on opposite sides of numerous court cases and shown no bias towards each other. In the end, the third arbitrator disclosed that he had previously been a member of Garretts’ attorneys’ firm and had also previously represented one of the Honns in a personal matter unrelated to their business.

Grass with field behind it with a cloudy sunset (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

The arbitrators ruled in favor of the Garrets on the questions involving the cash rent lease and the option top purchase. The ruling was 2 to 1, with the Honns’ arbitrator dissenting. The Honns appealed to the trial court and at the same time attempted to disqualify the judge for being biased against the Honns. The judge affirmed the award and refused to remove himself from the proceedings. The Honns appealed.

Why Care?

On appeal, I want to focus on the issues related to the ability of the third arbitrator and the trial judge to be impartial. Looking at the relationships disclosed by the third arbitrator, the court found that no evidence that the arbitrator was biased due to a past relationship with the Garretts’ attorneys. The business relationship with Garretts’ attorneys had ended 5 years prior to being appointed as an arbitrator. The court also agreed with the trial judge that the Garretts’ attorneys and the arbitrator had gone up against each other in court numerous times in the 5-year period and the prior relationship had not impacted their ability to advocate for their respective clients.

Did the trial judge have to remove himself becuase Garretts’ attorney and the third arbitrator often ate at the same restaurant. The arbitrator was not required to disclose this since it was public knowledge. To the court, the trial judge was also not required to remove himself from the proceedings because he often ate at the same restaurants as the Garretts’ attorneys and the third arbitrator. None of this showed that the judgment was biased against the Honns.

Man getting out of a tractor (Photo by Edwin Remsberg).

For each issue the Honns raised, the court of appeals often points to one common theme: this is taking place in a rural area, prior associations between attorneys will happen, and judge, attorneys, and other members of the communities will often frequent the same restaurants. Rural areas often have fewer attorneys than urban areas, so prior associations are bound to occur, but will not automatically disqualify attorneys from serving as arbitrators in disputes involving prior partners. Judges will look to the history of the two to determine if they can be impartial against a former partner.

Attorneys, judges, other officials, and county residents often frequent the same restaurants in a rural area, and there may often only be one or two restaurants in the area to eat at. Think about your experience in your own community. Potentially the town has maybe two or three restaurants and everyone eats at them periodically. If this was allowed as a reason to have a judge, an arbitrator, or a mediator removed from a dispute, it could leave no one to handle a legal issue and could force rural residents to travel outside of their home counties to pursue legal actions, increasing litigation costs.

I highlighted this case not for any principle of law in the court’s reasoning but to show that at times rural residents will face a small pools of attorneys, and potentially judges, those attorneys, and everyone else frequent the same places in the community. This does not automatically show someone will be partial to one side in a legal dispute. Parties will need to show something more to a judge or arbitrator to prove bias.

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