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Another judge recuses self from Mason's suit

Brad Hicks | Erwin Bureau Chief | Johnson City Press
For the fourth time since the it was filed more than four years ago, the judge or chancellor set to hear the local Masons’ complaint against the Town of Erwin and Tennessee Municipal League Risk Management Pool has recused himself.
On Feb. 2, an order of recusal was filed in Unicoi County Circuit Court. This order, signed by First Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Thomas Seeley Jr., stated that since Second Judicial District Circuit Court Judge John S. McLellan, the judge most recently assigned to the case, has recused himself, Chancellor John C. Rambo has agreed to hear the matter to its conclusion and the case has been reassigned to Rambo.
The order was filed two days before McLellan was set to preside over a hearing in the case. The defendants’ motion for summary judgment and the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment was set to be heard in Kingsport Law Court, but this hearing has now been pushed back.
In a letter dated Jan. 27 and addressed to McLellan, attorney Earl R. Booze, who is representing the town in the case, wrote that his clients thought it would be best if McLellan referred the matter to another judge as they did not want to put McLellan in an “uncomfortable position.”
In a letter filed on Jan. 28 and addressed to First Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Jean A. Stanley, McLellan wrote he agreed a new judge should be sought to hear the case as, since being assigned to the case, he had become a member of the Free Masons himself.
“During the time this matter has been pending, I had a change in circumstances that in that I became a member of the Freemasons MM Martin Lodge 547 at Piney Flats, Tennessee, during the latter part of 2014,” McLellan wrote. “I felt I was ethically required to advise the parties of my membership in the event a party was uncomfortable with my hearing this matter.
“I received a letter dated January 27, 2015 from Attorney Booze advising that his client prefers this matter to be referred to another Judge. Unfortunately, Chancellor (E.G) Moody and Judge (R. Jerry) Beck are also Freemasons. Therefore, with regret, I am referring this matter back to you for further assignment to a Judge to hear this cause.”
On April 8, 2009, the 86-year-old former Municipal Building was destroyed by a fire. The building, which was located at the corner of Gay Street and Church Avenue, served as Erwin Town Hall until the current Erwin Municipal Building opened in the mid-1990s. Although the old municipal building was mostly vacant after the new town hall opened, Centennial Lodge No. 491 of the Free Accepted Masons, Erwin’s chapter of the organization, used the facility as a meeting venue.
In September 2010, Rick Bearfield, the attorney representing the local Masons, filed a complaint in Unicoi County Circuit Court naming the Town of Erwin and the TML Risk Management Pool as defendants. According to the complaint, the Masons held property interest in the third floor of the three-story building, with the town maintaining ownership of the first two floors.
The complaint stated the TML issued an insurance policy covering the loss of the building due to the fire, and the Masons are seeking proceeds from the insurance payment equal to their interest in the building to be paid by either the TML or the town.
In November 2010, attorneys for the town and TML submitted an answer to the complaint which stated the town also owned the third floor of the building and denied having notice of the Masons’ real estate interest in the building. The counterclaim also stated that the town and TML do not feel the Masons are entitled to any of the insurance proceeds paid.
According to court documents, the TML issued a check for more than $3 million to the town of Erwin in April 2010.
At one point, the case was set for a jury trial in the Circuit Court’s Spring 2013 session. But since the original complaint was filed, a number of other motions and documents, including affidavits from people maintaining the Masons held property interest in the old municipal building and depositions from members of the Masons, as well as past and current town officials, have been filed.
The case had been in McLellan’s hands since early 2012. In January of that year, now-retired Chancellor G. Richard Johnson filed an order in Unicoi County Circuit Court recusing himself from the case citing a “conflict of interest.” That order stated McLellan had agreed to hear the cause.
Prior to Johnson’s recusal, two other judges had recused themselves from hearing the case — Stanley and Seeley.
Unicoi County does not have a regular Circuit Court judge. Instead, one of the circuit court judges representing the First Judicial District comes to the county one day each month to hear local Circuit Court cases. These judges rotate their stints in Unicoi County, and each judge is assigned to the county for four months when it is his or her turn. The Circuit Court judges are not assigned specific cases, but rather share the case load. This means a matter could be presented to a judge depending on when he or she is assigned to Unicoi County.
To avoid having the Masons case fall on one of their dockets, Stanley and Seeley recused themselves from the case in 2011. An order signed by Stanley and filed in December of that year stated that both she and Seeley had recused themselves and that a copy of the order had been given to Johnson, presiding judge for the First Judicial District, to secure another judge or chancellor to hear the matter through its conclusion.
Seeley recused himself as his son, Thomas J. Seeley III, serves as City Attorney for the town of Erwin. Stanley recused herself because one of her employees is related to a member of the Masons.
Rambo has not yet scheduled any future court dates in the case.