HLV, LLC v. Van Buren County, 052819 FED6, 18-1611

Docket Nº:18-1611
Party Name:HLV, LLC, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. VAN BUREN COUNTY, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Judge Panel:BEFORE: McKEAGUE, GRIFFIN, and NALBANDIAN, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:May 28, 2019
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

HLV, LLC, Plaintiff-Appellant,


VAN BUREN COUNTY, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 18-1611

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

May 28, 2019






As many cases do, this one has taken on a new life as it progressed through the courts. What began as a collection action in state court has evolved into a federal civil rights and racketeering suit against a former judge and several attorneys over their conduct in that collection action. It all began when HLV filed the collection action in Van Buren County Circuit Court to recover a $600, 000 debt from ELC Leasing and drew Judge Paul Hamre as the presiding judge. HLV and ELC brokered a settlement agreement, under which ELC was to transfer about 600 trailers to HLV to satisfy the debt. Hamre signed off on the agreement, but it soon fell through after ELC thwarted HLV's efforts to recover the trailers.

From there, the action grew more contentious. ELC retained two new attorneys, Kelly Page and Gary Stewart, and around that time, Hamre sua sponte issued several orders enjoining HLV from collecting its debt. Tensions boiled over when HLV's agents visited ELC's offices to retrieve information about the trailers: ELC summoned the police, and Van Buren County prosecutors later filed criminal charges against two of HLV's agents. Several weeks after the confrontation at ELC's offices, HLV recorded Hamre, Page, and Stewart disparaging HLV's attorneys and discussing the settlement agreement at the end of a telephonic status conference (the three men apparently believed that no one else was on the line). HLV then moved to disqualify Hamre, and within a matter of days, Hamre announced his resignation from the bench.

To be clear, the collection action-a state court matter-is not before this court. Rather, HLV filed a separate suit in federal court against Hamre, Page, Stewart, and others, alleging that the three men conspired to deprive HLV of its Fourteenth Amendment due-process rights. The district court dismissed Hamre as a defendant because of judicial immunity, a decision that HLV appeals. Over time, the district court dismissed still more defendants and claims, leaving ELC's attorney, Gary Stewart, as the lone defendant at trial. While the jury returned a verdict finding that Stewart engaged in a conspiracy to deprive HLV of its constitutional rights, it declined to award punitive damages. HLV now appeals the damages aspect of that verdict, raising three evidentiary objections as grounds for reversal.

Because HLV has not shown that Hamre's conduct-however inappropriate-falls within either of the two narrow exceptions to judicial immunity, we AFFIRM the district court's decision to dismiss Hamre from the suit. And because HLV has failed to show that the district court's evidentiary rulings amount to an abuse of discretion, we AFFIRM those rulings as well.



HLV filed a collection action against ELC Leasing, its affiliates, and its owner, William Engel, in Van Buren County Circuit Court, a Michigan state court, and drew Judge Paul Hamre as the presiding judge. In September 2012, the parties stipulated to a settlement agreement to discharge ELC's debt. ELC apparently could not satisfy the $600, 000 debt in cash, but ELC's owner, Engel, had a trailer business and agreed to transfer assets from that business to HLV. Engel signed a bill of sale and assignment of leases to transfer 600 trailers to HLV, but the agreement allowed Engel to retain possession of the trailers for 90 days. During that time, Engel could redeem the trailers by paying off ELC's debt.

One month later, the parties amended the settlement agreement ("October Agreement") by adding these three provisions: (1) if Engel did not transfer all 600 trailers to HLV at the end of the 90-day period, he would pay HLV $2, 500 for every trailer that he failed to transfer; (2) during the 90-day period, Engel could not sell or transfer any assets related to the trailer business; and (3) HLV could review all books and records related to the trailer business, provided HLV gave one day's notice. Hamre signed the October Agreement and entered it as an order of the court on October 12, 2012. But when the 90-day period expired, Engel never surrendered all the trailers. Instead, HLV alleges that Engel and ELC undermined its collection efforts by withholding the trailers' titles and removing their identification markers.

Sometime between January and March 2013, Engel and ELC retained two attorneys, Kelly Page and Gary Stewart, to defend them in the collection action. Soon after, Hamre began to issue orders frustrating HLV's ability to collect the trailers. The first came on March 6, 2013, when Hamre issued an ex parte temporary restraining order to enjoin HLV from collecting any more of the trailers from Engel or ELC. Fourteen days later, when the temporary restraining order was set to expire, Hamre held a hearing on two motions: (1) Engel and ELC's motion for an order enjoining HLV from any further collection efforts; and (2) HLV's motion for contempt, which HLV filed against Engel and ELC for violating the parties' October Agreement. Because Hamre did not rule on either motion from the bench, HLV alleges that the March 6, 2013, temporary restraining order expired on the day of the hearing.

Under the assumption that the temporary restraining order had expired, HLV resumed its efforts to recover the trailers from ELC and Engel on March 21. But one day later, Hamre issued another temporary restraining order that extended the original order until further order of the court. Hamre then issued an "order after hearing" that revised the October Agreement by requiring ELC and Engel to turn over only 347 trailers, not the 600 trailers that the October Agreement had specified.

HLV alleges that Hamre's modification to the October Agreement never extinguished its right to inspect Engel and ELC's books and records related to the trailers. So on April 8, HLV gave Engel notice that he planned to review the records, and the next day, HLV attorney Donovan Visser and HLV representative Robert Baker arrived for the inspection. Things got heated quickly: ELC representatives forcibly confiscated file boxes from Visser and moved a computer into another room to restrict his access. And then the police arrived. ELC employees claimed that HLV's agents had no right to be on ELC's property and showed the police officer a copy of the March 26, 2013, order that had revised the October Agreement. But Visser produced a copy of the October Agreement, which gave HLV the right to inspect ELC's books and records. Confused about which order prevailed, the police officer called Hamre. HLV alleges that Hamre told the police officer that he felt Visser was being deceptive by presenting the October Agreement rather than the later, amended orders-but cautioned that if criminal charges were filed, he would have "no input on that side of the proceedings." (R. 49, First Am. Compl. at ¶ 78.) The police left without making any arrests.

After the confrontation at ELC's offices, Hamre issued a show cause for contempt order against both HLV and Visser and Associates, HLV's law firm. HLV alleges that ELC never filed a motion but that "it is believed that ex parte communications with other Defendants did occur," prompting the contempt order. (Id. at ¶ 92.) Meanwhile, HLV renewed its motion for contempt against ELC and Engel, and Hamre held a hearing on that motion on May 6, 2013. At that hearing, Hamre denied HLV's motion, granted ELC additional time to try to sell the trailers, and enjoined HLV from selling any of the trailers in its possession. And finally, Hamre scheduled a telephonic status conference for May 10, 2013.

Hamre held the conference as scheduled, but not all participants joined by phone. While HLV's attorneys, Donovan and Donald Visser, called in, ELC's attorneys, Gary Stewart and Kelly Page, participated in person from Hamre's chambers. When the conference began, Hamre allegedly pressured HLV to accept partial payment from ELC, but HLV rejected the suggestion. So Hamre scheduled a hearing on the following Monday to chart the path forward.

HLV alleges that conference reached a natural end, and one of the attorneys participating by phone hung up, making a clicking noise. Hamre, Stewart, and Page...

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