A lawsuit that claims a San Diego family-court judge committed fraud and legal malpractice before he took the bench should be heard in San Diego County, a state appellate court ruled Monday.
The 4th District Court of Appeal ordered the case against Judge Thomas Ashworth III returned to San Diego Superior Court, saying it was improperly ordered out of the county.
Judge Michael I. Greer, former presiding judge of San Diego Superior Court, was wrong to take it upon himself last November to order the case to Orange County because he did not follow the proper procedures for a transfer, the unanimous three-judge appellate court said.
In addition, the panel said, there is "no evidence" to show that Ashworth cannot get an impartial trial in San Diego.
The $3-million suit was filed against Ashworth in 1987 by a Northern California woman, Virginia Searles, charging him with fraud and malpractice while he served as her divorce lawyer, before he took the bench in 1986.
Ashworth negligently allowed Searles' husband and others to defraud her of possibly millions of dollars from an insurance company and other properties the couple owned, the suit charges.
Although the suit was filed more than two years ago, it has yet to be assigned to a judge for trial.
First, San Diego Superior Court Judge Ben Hamrick bowed out, saying he had a conflict of interest because of his working relationship with Ashworth. Next, the Imperial County judge to whom it was assigned withdrew, saying he once had served on a legal panel with Ashworth.
In September, Greer indicated he would ask the state to assign a judge from outside the county. But, at a Nov. 30 hearing, Greer decided himself, over Searles' objection, to transfer the case to the Orange County Superior Court.
Searles appealed Greer's decision. The 4th District agreed with her that Greer acted improperly, saying he deprived her of due-process rights by not giving her an opportunity to file legal papers objecting to a transfer before the Nov. 30 hearing.
In ordering the case returned to San Diego, Justice Howard Wiener said the current presiding judge of the local Superior Court, Judith McConnell, should ask the state to provide an out-of-town judge to hear the case.
Judges Patricia Benke and Don Work concurred in the decision.
Despite the ruling, the case still might not be heard in San Diego. Ashworth's lawyer, Patrick McCormick, said Monday night that he will ask that the case be heard in another county.
Searles' lawyers, as well as Ashworth and Greer, could not be reached Monday for comment.