Sharp judge one reason cases were sent here

Reputation: Judge J. Frederick Motz's handling of complicated corporate litigation has earned him a national reputation.

March 14, 2004|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

None of the six mutual fund companies being sued by their shareholders over alleged trading abuses expected to be defending themselves in a Baltimore court, legal analysts say.

Most of the firms involved asked to have the more than 170 lawsuits moved either to federal courts in New York or closer to their respective corporate headquarters, which stretch from Colorado to North Carolina.

But in the end, a judicial panel set up to handle transfer requests put its faith in Judge J. Frederick Motz, whose handling of complicated corporate litigation has earned him a national reputation and helped put the U.S. District Court of Maryland on the judicial map.

In a Feb. 20 decision, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation put Motz and two other judges in charge of handling the mutual fund cases, which could take several years to process. Motz, a 61-year-old Baltimore native appointed to the court in 1985, serves on the panel.

"I think it's a credit to our federal bench that this was assigned to Baltimore because it's obviously a very high-profile and important group of cases," said James D. Mathias, co-chairman of the securities litigation group at Piper Rudnick in Baltimore. Mathias clerked for Motz in the late 1980s.

"This court is known for its efficiency and practicality throughout the country," he said.

Motz, who declined to be interviewed concerning the mutual funds litigation, earned his law degree at the University of Virginia School of Law and entered private practice in 1968. He did a three-year stint as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1969 to 1971, but then returned to private practice until 1981, when he was appointed U.S. attorney for Maryland. He was named to the federal court seat by President Ronald Reagan, and served a seven-year term as chief judge from 1994 to 2001.

"I'd say in private practice he was a lawyer's lawyer, and now that he's on the bench, he's a judge's judge," said James J. Hanks, a partner at Venable LLP in Baltimore.

While some judges find large corporate cases difficult and tedious, Motz likes to delve into the details, say attorneys who have been in his court.

In the late 1990s, he presided over a class action lawsuit against Honda Motor Co., which was accused by hundreds of dealerships of conspiring to ship fewer cars to dealers who refused to pay kickbacks to the automaker's executives.

In 2000, he was picked to take on dozens of cases against software giant Microsoft Corp., which was accused of using its monopoly power to overcharge customers for its software.

Legal analysts say the Microsoft case, which has yet to be resolved, provides insight into how Motz might handle the mutual fund lawsuits. Motz is credited with keeping the cases moving, despite the large volume of issues to be decided and the complexity of the arguments. He also proved that he's not the sort of judge who will settle for a quick solution.

In a dramatic move, he rejected a plan by Microsoft and some of the plaintiff's lawyers to settle the lawsuits by giving needy public schools $1 billion in free computers and software. In a 21-page decision in January 2002, the judge said that the settlement could harm the software giant's competitors and didn't include enough cash to help needy schools.

Some judges might have approved the deal to clear their docket, rather than give themselves more work, said some law professors and attorneys familiar with the case. But not Motz.

"He went into the guts of it and saw that it wasn't a good enough settlement ... and that it had to cost Microsoft more," said Robert Lande, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who followed the case.

Parties in the mutual fund cases won't be able to "cram a sham settlement" past Motz, Lande said.

"Sometimes, all the plaintiff counsel wants to do is make sure they get their fee, but Motz isn't going to let that happen," he said. "Either it's going to be a fair settlement to the consumers, or he won't let it happen."

Though they often challenged his rulings in the Microsoft proceedings, attorneys credited Motz for being thorough, methodical and even-handed.

"One nice thing he does after every hearing is he comes down off the bench and talks with the attorneys and shakes their hands, which no other judge I've dealt with has done," said Steven Benz, an attorney who represented a group of plaintiffs in the Microsoft case.

Benz and others said they were not surprised that Motz was chosen to play a prominent role in the mutual fund cases.

"There are judges known across the country for being very effective in stimulating settlements in these large class actions, and I think he's developed that kind of reputation as somebody who can handle these kinds of cases," said Alexander D. Bono, a Philadelphia attorney who has defended corporate officers and directors at financial firms.

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