Judge Linda D. Schoonover appears to have a different concept of a “friend of the court” party. The Seminole Circuit judge has been removed from a divorce case where she tried to “friend” one of the litigants, Sandra Chace. Chace declined on the advice of counsel to be a friend of Judge Schoonover. Her lawyer says that Schoonover responded with retaliation against her in a type of “scratch a Friend find a Foe” ploy.
The judge proceeded to shift most of the marital debt in her divorce to Chace and giving her husband, Robert Loisel Jr., a larger alimony award.
Now Schoonover’s colleagues have overturned her order that denied Chace’s motion for disqualification. The panel found that “a judge’s ex parte communication with a party presents a legally sufficient claim for disqualification, particularly in the case where the party’s failure to respond to a Facebook ‘friend’ request creates a reasonable fear of offending the solicitor.” The panel held that “The ‘friend’ request placed the litigant between the proverbial rock and a hard place: either engage in improper ex parte communications with the judge presiding over the case, or risk offending the judge by not accepting the ‘friend’ request.”
Previously, a court in Domville v. State, 103 So. 3d 184 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012), rev. denied, State v.
Domville, 110 So. 3d 441 (Fla. 2013), ruled that a judge’s social networking “friendship” with the prosecutor of the underlying criminal case was sufficient grounds for recusal for creating a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial.
Last year, the American Bar Association issued an opinion on judge’s using social media sites and cautioned against such contacts with parties. The ABA said that such contacts are permissible only to the extent that they do not “undermine the judge’s independence, integrity, or impartiality, or create an appearance of impropriety.” This includes the caution that
“Judges should not form relationships with persons or groups that may convey an impression that these people and entities are in a position to influence the judge, the opinion says. Judges also should take care to avoid comments or interactions that may be interpreted as ex parte communications concerning pending matters. And they should avoid using social networking sites to obtain information about matters before them.”
In quashing the prior order, the panel is leaving it to Schoonover to do the right thing with the lingering threat that “We trust that the issuance of a formal writ will be unnecessary.”
Here is the opinion: Chace v. Louisel
Schoonover is a graduated of Stetson College of Law (1985) and Florida State University (1977).