NORWALK, Conn. — The POKO lawsuit will continue with a new judge, the Court ruled Tuesday.
Judge Charles Lee dropped off the case docket in mid-September and on Sept. 24, the City and the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency filed a request that he be reassigned to the complicated lawsuit. Real estate broker Jason Milligan objected to that request Tuesday, and Judge Sheila Ozalis sustained that objection.
A new judge will have to get up to speed on the intricately complicated standoff between the plaintiffs and Milligan, resulting in much new additional court time, the plaintiffs had said. Milligan argued that he has three connected lawsuits and Ozalis is handling those. Giving one lawsuit to Lee would create “an unnecessary risk of disparate and inconsistent rulings on overlapping issues of law and fact.”
Lee has reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. He automatically became a trial referee.
A legal source said there’s precedent for a trial referee continuing on as a judge in a case he or she has already been presiding over, but both parties in the case would have to consent. Attorney Adam Blank, leaving a comment on Tuesday’s NancyOnNorwalk story about this issue, agreed. “The RDA’s motion to keep Judge Lee on as the trial judge cannot prevail without Milligan’s consent,” he wrote.
When asked on Oct 1 if he’d object to Lee being reinstated, Milligan did not give a clear yes or no.
On Wednesday, Milligan wrote, “Judge Lee has been furloughed. There is nothing that the city or I can do to force him to be the judge going forward even if all parties agree.”
All trial referees have been “furloughed as a result of COVID 19 with no specific timeframe for return,” Attorneys David Rubin and Jonathan Jacobsen wrote in the Tuesday objection.
The Complex Litigation Docket exists to keep the Civil Division operating smoothly by removing difficult, complicated cases from the ordinary flow of work, Rubin and Jacobsen wrote. Lee’s possible return is unpredictable, they said. While there’s been much testimony and evidence presented, the case is nowhere close to a trial.
Milligan’s attorneys painted the transfer as not being unusual, writing “the death, resignation, transfer, or general unavailability of judges occurs with such regularity in this State that legislative safeguards have been put into effect to ensure the prompt and efficient continued administration of justice despite the unavailability of the judicial authority.”
While the City and Redevelopment Agency wanted Lee back, Blank on Wednesday warned, “Milligan should be careful in his position. I’ve had cases with Judge Ozalis before she was a judge and tried cases with her as the judge. She is all business. If I was in his position I would be begging for Judge Lee to come back.”
Lee “was presiding over 4 or 5 cases surrounding POKO / redevelopment. It would be a full workload for a retired judge during Covid…” Milligan wrote. “I like and respect Judge Lee very much, but believe me it is not up to me to pick the judge.”