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Godfrey v. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Ltd.

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

December 19, 2019

ROLFE and KIRSTINE GODFREY, husband and wife and their marital community composed thereof, Respondents,
v.
STE. MICHELLE WINE ESTATES LTD., dba CHATEAU STE. MICHELLE, a Washington Corporation; and SAINT-GOBAIN CONTAINERS, INC, Petitioners, and ROBERT KORNFELD, Additional Respondent.

          Gonzalez, J.

         Those coming before the court have a fundamental right to an impartial decision-maker. Marshall v. Jerrico, Inc., 446 U.S. 238, 242, 100 S.Ct. 1610, 64 L.Ed.2d 182 (1980) (citing Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 259-62, 266-67, 98 S.Ct. 1042, 55 L.Ed.2d 252 (1978); Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 348-49, 96 S.Ct. 893, 47 L.Ed.2d 18 (1976), and quoting Joint Anti-Fascist Comm. v. McGrath, 341 U.S. 123, 172, 71 S.Ct. 624, 95 L.Ed. 817 (1951) (Frankfurter, J., concurring)). To protect this fundamental right, Washington statutes liberally allow litigants to disqualify a judge assigned to their case without establishing actual prejudice-but, usually, only before that judge has made a discretionary ruling or order in the case. Former RCW 4.12.040, .050 (2009); Laws OF 2009, ch. 332, § 20.[1]

         Under those statutes, though, a party does not lose the right to remove a judge when the judge takes certain categories of actions, including arranging the calendar. Former RCW 4.12.050. We hold that a stipulated order extending discovery deadlines that does not delay the trial or otherwise affect the court's schedule is an order arranging the calendar under former RCW 4.12.050. Accordingly, the affidavit of prejudice was timely, and the case should have been reassigned to a different judge. We affirm the Court of Appeals on different grounds and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         FACTS

         A wine bottle shattered in Rolfe Godfrey's hand while he was working as a bartender, injuring him. Godfrey filed a products liability lawsuit against the winery, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Ltd., and the bottle manufacturer, Saint-Gobain Containers Inc. (collectively Ste. Michelle).

         The case was assigned to Pierce County Superior Court Judge Garold E. Johnson, who set the initial case schedule, including discovery deadlines. The case was later reassigned to Judge Katherine M. Stolz, who, upon a stipulated and jointly proposed order, extended the parties' deadlines to disclose their witnesses. This case turns on the nature of that stipulated order. Two months later, and before Judge Stolz made any other rulings in the case, Godfrey filed an affidavit of prejudice and a motion for Judge Stolz's recusal under former RCW 4.12.040 and .050. Judge Stolz denied the motion, concluding that the earlier stipulated order to extend witness disclosure deadlines involved discretion and, thus, the affidavit of prejudice was not timely. Later, Judge Stolz presided over the bench trial. Ste. Michelle prevailed, and Godfrey appealed.

         On appeal, Godfrey argued that the trial court erred in rejecting his affidavit of prejudice and motion for recusal as untimely because Judge Stolz's order extending witness disclosure deadlines was not an "order or ruling involving discretion" under former RCW 4.12.050. He also argued that the trial court abused its discretion by imposing certain sanctions following a discovery dispute late in the pretrial phase.[2] The Court of Appeals held the trial court erred in rejecting Godfrey's affidavit of prejudice, reasoning that "[r]ulings on pretrial stipulated orders relating to scheduling and deadlines" are not discretionary for the purposes of timeliness under former RCW 4.12.050. Godfrey v. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Ltd., No. 46963-4-II, slip op. at 5 (Wash.Ct.App. July 19, 2016) (unpublished) (Godfrey I). The Court of Appeals did not reach the sanctions issue.[3] Godfrey I, slip op. at 2 n.1.

         Ste. Michelle petitioned for review, which we stayed, pending our decision in State v. Lile, 188 Wn.2d 766, 398 P.3d 1052 (2017). Later, we remanded to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration in light of Lile. Godfrey v. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Ltd., 189 Wn.2d 1016 (2017). The Court of Appeals again concluded that Godfrey's affidavit of prejudice was timely because the stipulated order extending witness disclosure deadlines was not discretionary under Lile. Godfrey v. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Ltd., No. 46963-4, slip op. at 2 (Wash.Ct.App. Dec. 27, 2018) (unpublished), http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/D2%2046963-4-II%20Unpublished%20Opinion.pdf (Godfrey II). Ste. Michelle petitioned the court for review again, which we granted. Godfrey v. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Ltd., 193 Wn.2d 1013 (2019).

         ISSUE

         Is an affidavit of prejudice untimely under former RCW 4.12.050 when it is submitted after entry of a stipulated order extending discovery deadlines?

         ANALYSIS

         Judges may be disqualified for prejudice. Our statutes set forth a mechanism to disqualify a superior court judge without showing actual prejudice. Former RCW 4.12.050; Lile, 188 Wn.2d at 774-75. At the relevant time, the statute provided that a party could disqualify a judge by timely filing a motion supported by an affidavit indicating that the party believes that it cannot have a fair and impartial trial before that judge. Lile, 188 Wn.2d at 775. A timely affidavit of prejudice must be granted. Harbor Enters., Inc. v. Gudjonsson, 116 Wn.2d 283, 291, 803 P.2d 798 (1991).

         To be timely, an affidavit of prejudice disqualifying the judge must be filed

before he or she shall have made any ruling whatsoever in the case, either on the motion of the party making the affidavit, or on the motion of any other party to the action, of the hearing of which the party making the affidavit has been given notice, and before the judge presiding has made any order or ruling involving discretion, but the arrangement of the calendar, the setting of an action, motion or proceeding down for hearing or trial, the arraignment of the accused in a criminal action ...

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