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UNITED STATES v. FIAT MOTORS OF NORTH AMERICA INC.

April 15, 1981

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff,
v.
FIAT MOTORS OF NORTH AMERICA INC., a corporation



The opinion of the court was delivered by: PARKER

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Fiat Motors of North America has moved for disqualification of this trial judge from further presiding over this litigation or alternatively for discretionary transfer and reassignment of the proceeding to another judge. Following an April 3, 1981 hearing on the motion, I orally ruled and denied the defendant's motion. The reasons for that determination are discussed in this opinion.

 BACKGROUND

 On January 4, 1980, the Government charged Fiat Motors of North America with violating the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq. The complaint filed with this Court specifically charged Fiat with failing to remedy safety defects on several models of its motor vehicles. The Government alleged that certain designated Fiat models were subject to severe rust and corrosion of critical undercarriage components, which in turn affected their operational safety, more particularly the problem of control or lack of control of the motor vehicle. On the same day that the complaint was filed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a final order requiring Fiat to recall those vehicles. In this proceeding the Government seeks enforcement of that recall order.

 Several months before the present complaint was filed in this Court, Fiat, as plaintiff, had already instituted an action against the Traffic Safety Administration in the Southern District of New York.* That proceeding was filed in September of 1979. Fiat charged there that the Government's administrative proceedings, brought to determine whether Fiat had violated the Safety Act, deprived it of constitutional and statutory rights as well as access to an impartial tribunal. Fiat's request for a preliminary injunction restraining the Government from conducting a hearing on this matter was denied. Meanwhile, Fiat moved in the Southern District proceeding to file a supplemental complaint challenging the January 1980 recall order. At a February 6, 1980 hearing, Judge Milton Pollack granted Fiat's request to file a supplemental complaint, but held the New York action in abeyance pending a ruling by this Court on whether the two actions should be consolidated in this jurisdiction.

 On February 7th, Fiat moved to transfer this proceeding to the Southern District of New York and to dismiss portions of the complaint on the ground that the Government filed suit before Fiat had notice and an opportunity to comply with the January recall order. The Government, in turn, moved to consolidate the New York action in this Court. On May 5th, I denied Fiat's motions and ordered the Southern District action consolidated with this proceeding. The company then immediately moved for clarification of the denial of its dismissal motion and for certification of the consolidation order and for interlocutory appeal. I provided them with the clarification, but denied certification. They then sped to the Court of Appeals, petitioned for a writ of mandamus seeking vacation of the Court's consolidation order. The petition was denied. Fiat then filed a petition for a rehearing and a suggestion for rehearing en banc. This was also denied.

 Since consolidation, this proceeding has been mired in and held back by a series of requests to extend the deadlines established for completion of discovery, motions to compel and motions for protective orders. I need not recount the details of how the discovery proceeded, indeed, how it has been detoured and needlessly protracted. Nonetheless, a few incidents are illustrative.

 Fiat's most recent motion for a protective order sought to bar the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from obtaining rust and corrosion information from other motor vehicle manufacturers pursuant to an administrative order and subpoena. The Court denied this motion at a hearing on January 23, 1981. Whereupon Fiat immediately moved orally for certification of the denial for interlocutory appeal and another extension of discovery. The two motions were denied. On January 26th, Fiat applied for a stay of the Traffic Safety administrative order pending a ruling by the Court of Appeals on its petition for a writ of mandamus. This application was denied January 27th. Fiat then filed a second petition for mandamus. The application was denied by the Court of Appeals on February 3rd. A petition for rehearing and suggestion for rehearing en banc were likewise denied on March 12th.

 Finally, on March 3, 1981, nearly 14 months after the Government brought this suit, Fiat filed the present motion seeking my disqualification from further presiding over this matter, or, alternatively, that I exercise my discretion and transfer this matter to the Calendar Committee for reassignment to another judge.

 After a full consideration of the parties' memoranda of points and authorities, and the argument of counsel, I conclude that Fiat's motion is frivolous and must be denied. The factual basis for the motion is weak; the legal authority is tenuous. In sum, the motion is devoid of merit.

 LEGAL ANALYSIS

 Fiat's counsel asserts several grounds as the basis for disqualification. First, he claims that it was only recently learned that in 1975 I was involved in an automobile accident from which I sustained permanent, severe, crippling injuries and loss; that it is alleged in the Government's complaint that certain of defendant's vehicles contain safety defects; that in this nonjury case I will rule on a number of factual questions and legal issues all related to motor vehicle safety and risks of accident. Fiat's counsel then arrives at the conclusion that it does not believe that any human being who has suffered such serious injuries and loss by an automobile, as I have, can determine such issues impartially and under the circumstances that it would be unreasonable to compel their company to run the substantial risk of partiality and expose ...


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