Judge recuses himself from civil lawsuits linked to Ooltewah High School rape case

The exterior of Ooltewah High School photographed on Sunday, January 31, 2016. (Staff file photo by Maura Friedman)

A federal judge recused himself Monday from a pair of 2016 civil lawsuits related to the Ooltewah High School rape, citing a law that deals with impartiality.

U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough did not say why he removed himself from the cases nearly a year and a half into proceedings. His office declined to comment Tuesday.

In a one-page order, McDonough cited 28 U.S. Code 455, which says federal judges must disqualify themselves whenever their impartiality "might reasonably be questioned." U.S. District Court Judge Harry "Sandy" Mattice has been assigned to the case.

According to the law, disqualification includes any personal bias toward someone on the case, any personal knowledge of disputed facts in the case, any time the judge might have represented someone now involved in the case, and any spouse or third party who could be substantially affected by the outcome of the case.

photo Travis McDonough

Judges often recuse themselves at the beginning of a proceeding, which McDonough, a former attorney for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, did in 2017 on a case that alleged city officers were giving out unredacted traffic reports in violation of federal law.

No Hamilton County Department of Education lawyers or plaintiffs' attorneys ever asked McDonough to recuse himself on this case, according to court records.

The proceeding involves two Ooltewah victims who say the district failed to protect them on a 2015 basketball trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., when one student was raped with a pool cue and three others were attacked by teammates. The students filed lawsuits in September and December 2016, respectively, and McDonough has been on the case since that time.

McDonough likely was going to rule on two outstanding issues in the case.

First, school board attorneys asked for separate trials, saying the students' injuries were too different for them to be tried together. Plaintiffs' attorneys say it makes no sense to put the victims through two trials that share the same facts and witnesses.

Second, plaintiffs' attorneys want to call Hamilton County Board of Education members to the witness stand to ask why their lawyers continue to deny a hired investigator's report that three students experienced sexual harassment on the trip. But school board lawyers say the plaintiffs' attorneys didn't file that notice in time.

The trial is set for September in Chattanooga's U.S. District Court.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

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