New Ethics Complaint Against Ex-Judge

April 15, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA Summerville couple have filed an ethics complaint against a former Dorchester County judge, questioning why he is continuing to hear their foreclosure case – and others – after he resigned his judgeship.

The woman, who asked that she and her husband not be identified, provided their written complaint to The Nerve last week following a published Nerve story revealing that former Master-in-Equity Patrick Watts had been assigned at least 48 foreclosure cases in Dorchester County as a “special referee.”

Watts had been the county’s master-in-equity since 1994 and earned about $68,000 annually in the part-time position. He resigned at the end of 2010 amid allegations that he mishandled foreclosure cases, including one involving another Summerville woman whose case appealed to the S.C. Supreme Court.

Watts remained on the bench after his term expired June 30 last year, becoming, according to the state judicial screening committee’s chief lawyer, the first master-in-equity in the state to be in “holdover” status.

The state’s top court in 2009 ruled that Watts violated Sherry Peterson-Davidson’s constitutional rights by allowing his secretary to conduct a foreclosure hearing involving her home – without any testimony. Watts later signed an order authorizing the foreclosure, though he wasn’t present at the hearing, according to court records.

Peterson-Davidson later filed an ethics complaint against Watts, who received a private slap-on-the wrist, according to a December court letter provided by Peterson-Davidson to The Nerve.

Watts declined comment on the latest complaint when contacted Monday by The Nerve.

Under court rules, the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, an arm of the Supreme Court that investigates ethical complaints against judges and lawyers, generally cannot publicly reveal complaints unless the Commission on Judicial Conduct or Commission on Lawyer Conduct authorizes ethics charges; or if the Supreme Court, which has final say on discipline, issues a public sanction.

Court rules, however, do not prevent people who file complaints from publicly revealing them.

The latest complaint against Watts is dated March 25. The woman who filed it provided The Nerve with a March 29 letter from the Office of Disciplinary Counsel acknowledging that it had received the grievance and would “conduct an investigation in the matters you have reported in your complaint.”

Most complaints against judges are dismissed, court records show. Lee Coggiola, the state’s chief disciplinary counsel, earlier told The Nerve that’s because they often deal with appellate rather than ethical questions.

In the March 29 letter to the couple, Assistant Disciplinary Counsel Joseph Turner told the couple that the “authority of this office and the jurisdiction of the Commission (on Judicial Conduct) are limited to issues of whether a judge has committed misconduct within the Rules for Judicial Disciplinary Enforcement, Rule 502, SCACR, adopted by the Supreme Court of South Carolina.”

“Where misconduct is found,” Turner said, “sanctions may be imposed upon a judge ranging from a confidential letter of caution all the way up to removal from office.”

The couple allege in their complaint that Watts has “continued to adjudicate cases as Master in Equity and/or Special Referee for Dorchester County since January 2011 and is today presiding over many cases,” noting that Watts had signed a judgment and order of sale as a special referee in their case.

The Nerve reported last week that in at least six foreclosure cases, Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson of Orangeburg, the chief administrative judge for the state’s 1st Circuit, which covers Dorchester, Orangeburg and Calhoun counties, appointed Watts last month as a special referee. Dickson did not respond to an earlier message from The Nerve seeking comment.

Under court rules, a special referee appointed by a circuit judge “shall exercise all power and authority which a circuit judge sitting without a jury would have in a similar matter.” The parties in a case pay the special referee’s fee, which is set by the referee unless there is an objection. If there is an objection to the referee’s self-set pay, a circuit judge reviews the fee, according to court rules.

Masters-in-equity have the authority of circuit judges but typically hear non-jury civil cases, mainly foreclosures. There are 21 masters-in-equity in the state, court records show.

The March 25 complaint also contends that an employee of the Dorchester County Clerk of Court’s Office informed the couple that a Columbia law firm had “requested that Watts remain on the bench to complete all pending cases for which this law firm represented plaintiffs.”

“Whether this is hearsay or confirmation of actual events from a public official, it causes us grave concern regarding the irregular nature of Watts’ continuance as a judge and his impartiality in such cases before the court,” the couple allege.

The Summerville couple also contend in their complaint that in three previous foreclosure judgments rendered by Watts against them, they were ordered to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees in amounts of $4,000, $6,000 and $7,000, noting that those fees were “roughly double the national average attorney fees awarded in foreclosure cases.” In their latest case, attorney fees were set at $1,125, the couple said.

“In a state where plaintiff attorneys are able to choose their judges – and foreclosure defendants rarely defend themselves – it seems apparent why foreclosure attorneys are choosing Patrick Watts as their judge of choice,” the couple said in their complaint.

The couple in their complaint also cited numerous “irregularities and violations of civil procedure in the judicial handling of our case.” They allege, for example, that based on online court records, a motion and order appointing Watts to their case were filed on March 9, two weeks after a final hearing – presided over by Watts – was held.

“We believe the order and/or motion were backdated, as they did not appear in online court records until recently,” the couple said in their complaint.

In a follow-up March 30 letter to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, a copy of which was provided toThe Nerve, the woman said she previously worked as a deputy clerk for the Oklahoma Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.

The woman last week provided The Nerve with a copy of a 1980 written order from the then-Oklahoma Supreme Court chief justice appointing her as a deputy clerk.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org