Motion to Dismiss

Should Judge Lynne Hufnagel be benched? Ask the bankrupt cabbies, bullied witnesses and banished lawyers who've tasted her bitter brand of justice.

In theory, Mathis's position was similar to that of a bankruptcy trustee, Brooks noted, but her appointment "appears to have been accomplished without advance notice, full disclosure, accountability, opportunity to object, or other procedural safeguards" afforded by bankruptcy laws--not to mention the potential conflict of interest in hiring her own law firm, something a trustee is permitted to do only under unique circumstances.

In a written declaration submitted to Judge Cordova, Judge Hufnagel defended her appointment of Mathis and the proposed sale as in the best interest of the company. "I exercised proper control over this proceeding and over my appointed Receiver's conduct and fees," she insisted. But her avowal has done little to spare her receiver from the wrath of angry creditors and drivers in the two years since the stormy receivership ended.

Mathis recently reached a tentative settlement with YCCA in the fee dispute, agreeing to repay $140,000 and to drop her counterclaims against the company. She faces another lawsuit in December from a woman injured by a Yellow Cab driver in an auto accident; the woman, who has a $2 million judgment against YCCA she's been unable to collect because of the bankruptcy action, claims that the receiver failed to acquire adequate insurance for the company and breached her fiduciary duties. Last month Mathis, who has denied any liability, told the woman's attorneys that the Mathis Law Firm is no longer a "functioning law firm" and that she's gone to work for a firm owned by two former associates.

As for Yellow Cab, its long journey through bankruptcy court is almost over, thanks to a sale to investors for $2 million and a pledge to pump another $2 million into improving operations. But since the company was at least $2 million in the hole at the time it filed bankruptcy, the co-op's owners will receive nothing from the sale. Still, court documents indicate that the company's creditors will receive more out of the transaction than they would have gotten out of the assets sale that Mathis had proposed.

By the time Yellow Cab staggered out of Hufnagel's court and into bankruptcy, "the company was in much worse shape than when the receiver took over, both in operations performance and in cash flow," says former YCCA general manager Clark Trammell, who shepherded the company through the reorganization. "It was a very dark period for Yellow Cab."

Leroy Jones traces the company's collapse back to Hufnagel's decision to appoint a receiver five years ago. "There was no justification for it, no legal basis that I could see," he says. "I think she's a discredit to her profession. If I had to judge judges on her ability, they wouldn't be worth the gum on my shoe."

Some people just want to throw out all the rascals, nuke 'em, let God sort them out. In recent years judicial-retention elections in the metro area have hovered around a 70 percent "retain" vote, regardless of who the judge might be.

"Obviously, 30 percent of the voters are flipping 'no' levers on all of them," says Greg Fasing of the Denver Judicial Performance Commission, "and that's just wrong."

Fasing says that's one reason the legislature created the commission--to provide voters with independent, unblinking appraisals of otherwise faceless judges. Not simply to single out judges who shouldn't be retained, he adds, but to let voters know about "the good work most judges are doing."

In the commission's world of standard questionnaires and randomly selected respondents, a judicial approval rating of 70 percent is considered soft. The vast majority of Denver's district court judges routinely receive a thumbs-up from 80 percent or more of the attorneys polled, and even stronger numbers from jurors and courthouse personnel. By that benchmark, Lynne Hufnagel's attorney evaluations in 1992 and 1994--the last two times statistically valid written surveys were conducted on her performance--were abysmal. In 1992, during her stint in divorce court, her "retain" rating from attorneys was barely above 40 percent; in 1994, it crept to 52 percent.

Lynne Hufnagel doesn't think the commission has been fair to her. In August, when she appeared before Fasing's panel for a third and final interview, she brought with her a prepared statement expressing her concerns about fairness and due process. She was "shocked" by the preliminary draft she'd received of the panel's evaluation of her, she said, and had already endured a "nightmarish two months" of wrangling with the group over its report, during which she'd felt compelled to hire a lawyer for only the second time in her life.

The commission wasn't following its own rules, she insisted. No police officers had been asked about her performance, she noted, although the rules call for them to be surveyed, too. (No such surveys were conducted for any Denver district judge; law enforcement surveys were done in county court, but Fasing suggests the state may have lacked the funds to prepare them for all the judges.) The 1992 and 1994 surveys shouldn't be used, she reasoned, because the attorney sampling couldn't be "replicated" by the commission's statistician, Joyce Sterling. (Sterling, a law professor at the University of Denver, says the methodology of the surveys from those years is valid and can be replicated; it's the same list of respondents that can't be reproduced.) And Hufnagel questioned whether the phone surveys that were used in place of written questionnaires in 1996 reflected "a balanced cross-section of persons who have had professional contact with me."

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