Photograph by Thomas Trutschel Photothek via Getty Images
By Jeff John Roberts
May 24, 2016

U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal, who is leaving the bench to join Facebook (FB) , agreed on Monday to recuse himself from a lawsuit involving Google after a lawyer in the case raised conflict-of-interest objections.

Grewal expressed bafflement at the request but nonetheless agreed to drop the case, which is about Google’s (GOOG) allegedly unlawful scanning of student email —and also expressed regret he could not buy lunch to thank the judge who will take over.

“I would buy you lunch for this inconvenience as a small token of my appreciation,” wrote Grewal in the final paragraph of an order. “But the present circumstances suggest that even such a limited gesture might be misinterpreted. So rather than giving you lunch, I give you something far more modest, but just as heartfelt: my thanks.”

Grewal also thanked the many people who have congratulated by email and by “Facebook posts” about his new job, which will involve overseeing global litigation for the social network.

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He dryly added that a congratulatory note from lawyer Ryan Callo, who is leading the Google lawsuit, “stood out” because of the recusal request. Grewal also stressed that he bears no ill will against Callo, and commends him on his advocacy.

But Grewal insisted that he couldn’t understand the reason for the request, but that he’ll step aside for the sake of appearances. Even though the case doesn’t involve Facebook, Callo had claimed Grewal’s decisions could be affected by his new job.

Here are his comments in detail (you can read the whole order here):

The letter articulates no basis other than the fact that my new employer may hold certain views about protecting confidential information in cases such as this. And yet Facebook is not the defendant in this case—Google is. In fact, Facebook is not a party of any kind. The most that can be said of my future employer is that, like, Google, it provides a global social network with a certain public profile and a certain litigation experience. […]

Still, I am mindful that the goal of Section 455 is “to avoid even the appearance of partiality,” even where no partiality exists.

While the decision itself is not that remarkable, the order is interesting because Grewal, who is well respected in the legal community, provides a rare window into the personal aspects of a judge’s job.

The case, meanwhile, trundles on. Recent docket entries shows hundreds of students have added their names as plaintiffs against Google, which is accused of scanning their emails without permission in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.


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