By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A former court reporter sued Judge Sally Montgomery this week, claiming that Montgomery wrongfully fired her from her seven-year job at County Court at Law No. 3. Lawyers for Cayce Coskey claim that Montgomery, rated in February by the Texas Observer as the second-worst judge in Texas, fired Coskey on June 19 after she questioned whether Montgomery withheld information from the defense counsel in a wrongful death suit against Atlanta-based building materials manufacturer Georgia-Pacific Corp.
After his testimony, one of the plaintiffs, Harold Bostic, collapsed in front of the jury and later died. Not told of Bostic's death, jurors asked a bailiff how Bostic was doing the following week. The jury's concerns eventually were made known to Montgomery--though how that happened is disputed--and Coskey alleges that Montgomery instructed her not to tell Georgia-Pacific of the jury's inquiries. When she challenged Montgomery's decision, Coskey was fired, according to her lawsuit.
"[Coskey] reported what she believed to be violations of the law," to Montgomery, according to Coskey's original petition. Coskey alleges the judge not only "sanctioned the unlawful conduct" of withholding information from the defense but "authored the retaliatory discharge."
This was the second time the case had been tried in Montgomery's court. For nearly an hour and a half last May, the jury heard the testimony of an emotionally fragile Bostic, whose 41-year-old son died in 2003 from mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer. Bostic told the court how he had unwittingly exposed his son Timothy to asbestos while his son helped him on construction jobs as a kid back in the '70s. The Bostic family had been awarded more than $9 million in a 2005 suit against Georgia-Pacific, but the case was thrown out on a procedural error. After testifying again in May, he collapsed in the courthouse hallway in view of the jury. One of the jurors, an emergency medical technician, elevated Bostic's legs. Bostic had not yet been cross-examined by Georgia-Pacific.
Georgia-Pacific immediately moved for a mistrial, which Montgomery said she would not consider until after a verdict had been reached. This time, the jury awarded $13.6 million to the Bostic family.
Between the motion and the verdict, court documents claim, jurors asked the bailiff about Bostic and why the counsel for the plaintiff, Charla Aldous, had been clad in black for several days. Instead of relaying these questions to the judge, court documents state, the bailiff told Aldous to change her clothing. When Coskey became aware of this, she claims she told Montgomery, who declined to relay the information to Georgia-Pacific's attorneys. Coskey alleges that Montgomery told her that the defense could learn about the jurors' concerns at a post-verdict interview "if they asked the right questions."
The defense would later claim Montgomery's decision qualified as withholding "critical information" bearing on their mistrial motion. They have filed a motion to remove Montgomery from the case. A representative for Georgia-Pacific declined to comment on the ongoing case, saying only that "we just want a fair and impartial judge."