The Purgatory Docket: Mass. Judge Leaves Cases In Limbo

By Chris Villani | December 8, 2023, 3:17 PM EST ·

Katheena Soneeya has been waiting more than six years for a ruling that never seems to come. Diagnosed with gender dysphoria, she identifies as a woman and is serving a life sentence for murder in a Massachusetts state prison for men.

Soneeya sued 16 years ago, in 2007, seeking access to medical care, hormone treatments, certain feminine products and an assessment as to whether she should be able to access gender-affirming surgery. In 2012, a federal judge ruled the Massachusetts Department of Correction had violated her constitutional rights.

Soneeya says the DOC has failed to follow through after that ruling, so she filed a motion to compel in 2017 before U.S. District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, to whom the case was assigned in 2014. The motion was renewed in 2019, and an evidentiary hearing was held. But in the intervening years, there has been no ruling on her pending motion.

"It has been very frustrating, and I feel depressed," Soneeya said in written responses to questions from Law360 shared through her attorneys. "I think about killing myself all the time."

"After the 2019 trial, I really thought the judge was going to make a ruling in my favor. I was really excited about that. But nothing has happened," she said. "My anxiety and depression have increased, and I have trouble sleeping. I cannot live like this. I cannot be trapped like this — being half of a man, half of a woman — in a male environment."

Soneeya's case highlights what experts say is a problem that is difficult to solve. Federal judges hold lifetime appointments, their salaries are fixed, and they do not face firm deadlines to resolve civil disputes or any form of discipline if cases stall unnecessarily on their dockets. That is particularly true of Judge Woodlock, who as of earlier this year had dozens of unresolved motions on his docket.

"Judges are supposed to preside over their docket, efficiently and with promptness, but 'prompt' is a word that's used in the legal profession, not unlike the reasonableness standard. What's 'reasonable?' What's 'prompt?'" said Jan Jacobowitz, a legal ethics expert at the University of Miami Law School.

"You would have to think that 16 years is not prompt," Jacobowitz said.

Dozens of Cases Await Resolution

The Civil Justice Reform Act of 1990 requires the director of the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts to compile a semiannual report showing cases pending more than six months, including outstanding motions and bench trials. The reports capture cases through March 31 and Sept. 30 of each year, but due to a lag in the release of the data, the most recent publicly available report is from March of this year.

That report showed 42 pending motions awaiting rulings on Judge Woodlock's docket, more than every other district judge in Massachusetts combined.

Hofstra University law professor James Sample called the delays an "egregious failure that seemingly amounts to a willful abdication of duty on the judge's part."

"Whether it's dereliction of duty, whether it's intentional or it's a product of dilatory behavior is almost immaterial. The reality is, this is an individual drawing a salary while simultaneously gumming up the works," Sample said, adding that dockets as clogged as Judge Woodlock's are relatively rare in the federal system.

"Ultimately, we rely on norms for the functioning of government and, when norms erode, the problems are sometimes even worse than when there is noncompliance with laws," Sample said. "A lack of compliance with norms can be hard to enforce, but it can cause serious problems on a systemic basis. The litigants here are suffering those problems, and it's not their fault."

Judge Woodlock, through a court representative, said "The court cannot comment on pending cases and the processing of pending cases."

In the March report, Judge Woodlock had five bench trials that had gone more than six months without a ruling, including Soneeya's.

The rest of the judges in the First Circuit — comprising Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Puerto Rico — had one such trial combined. A Ronald Reagan appointee who has been on the federal bench since 1986 and took senior status in 2015, Judge Woodlock has cleared some of that backlog in the intervening months.

In October, the city of Boston and a group of Black police officers who say their careers were derailed by unreliable and racially biased hair-follicle drug test results reached a $2.6 million settlement, ending a case filed in 2005. The settlement came some five years after a 2018 bench trial that largely sat dormant thereafter. The plaintiffs and the city entered mediation in March after Judge Woodlock offered a preview of his anticipated ruling, according to the case docket.

Last month, a physical therapist lost her bid to show her firing was in retaliation for whistleblowing, with a 76-page ruling that followed a similar five-year wait after a bench trial before Judge Woodlock.

But some cases remain pending. An ongoing suit over Massachusetts' expanded "right to repair" law has stalled on the judge's docket. In order to comply with the law, which passed via the ballot box in 2020 and is now subject to enforcement by the attorney general amid the delays, Subaru chose to disable telematics systems in new cars that are at the center of the dispute, including features like Starlink that can alert emergency responders in the event of a crash.

Judge Woodlock presided over a 2021 bench trial but put off issuing a ruling at least six times, citing a busy court schedule, the need for further briefing, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and other conflicts that he said were "unforeseen and unforeseeable."

Limited Options for Litigators

Two cases that, until recently, remained pending are Soneeya's and a case involving a trio of law firms in a dispute over $20 million in attorney fees related to a $785 million whistleblower settlement with a Pfizer subsidiary.

The firms — Boone & Stone, Vezina & Gattuso LLC and Sakla Law Firm — have been battling over the fees and interest since the False Claims Act case was settled in 2016. Judge Woodlock held a bench trial in January 2018 to settle the dispute and issued a response to some post-trial motions in October of that year.

Both Soneeya and the firms filed mandamus petitions with the First Circuit, asking the appellate court to force the judge to issue a ruling. But the petitions were denied, with the First Circuit simply stating the bids did not qualify for the "extraordinary remedy" of mandamus. The appellate panel also in both cases included language suggesting its expectation is that Judge Woodlock "promptly" decide the issues before him.

"The best that a litigant can do is to seek an order of mandamus, hoping that the judge will respond by making a decision and, if not, the appeals court will order the district judge to decide the case and/or order the case to be reassigned," said Bruce Green, who directs the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University School of Law. "There's no better option."

Green cited the canon of judicial conduct that says judges should promptly dispose of their cases, but added "life-tenured federal judges are not subject to discipline for violating it."

Soneeya's lawyers wrote in her petition that she "has waited in limbo for over 10 years" while other transgender women imprisoned have been transferred to a female facility and provided gender-affirming surgery.

"Ms. Soneeya respectfully submits that the district court has, in effect, abandoned jurisdiction over this action by failing to resolve the motion to compel for years and allowing this action to remain unresolved indefinitely," the petition states. "As a result of the DOC's intransigence, compounded by the district court's significant delay, Ms. Soneeya has been living in an untenable limbo, with great damage to her mental health."

An attorney for Soneeya, Patrick Roath of Ropes & Gray LLP, said he felt they had no choice but to go to the appellate court.

"The fact that we took the step of the mandamus indicates our view that other avenues have not succeeded in getting the judge's attention," Roath said in an interview. "We felt it was our obligation and duty to file this petition to hopefully spur some action on the case."

While Soneeya's case remains unresolved, Judge Woodlock finally divvied up the attorneys fees from the False Claims Act Suit this week, ending the multiyear wait. 

In addition to going to the appeals court, litigants have tried to pry a ruling out of the court by peppering judges with letters. That was the tack used by investors in Sonus Networks Inc., who sued the company following a 2015 stock drop.

During a three-year wait for a ruling on a motion to dismiss, the investors filed letters on the docket asking U.S. District Judge George A. O'Toole to deny the motion in January 2022 and followed up with letters in June, July and September of that year. The lawyers alerted Judge O'Toole in September that a mandamus petition would be filed if he did not issue a ruling. He denied the motion to dismiss the following day, and the case was later settled for $4.5 million.

But aside from ratcheting up the pressure to rule, the system relies on the judiciary to self-regulate. Chad Schmucker, a former Michigan state court judge and court administrator, said peer pressure has also worked in his experience. During his time as chief judge in his circuit, he printed lists ahead of meetings with his fellow jurists showing cases that had been pending for more than a year.

"Sometimes I went through the list, and I got explanations. Sometimes, it was just embarrassing that you had three cases on your list and the judge sitting next to you had no cases," Schmucker said. "There is always supposed to be some monitoring of that. It is built into the system, but it's not always used effectively."

The Waiting Continues

Being a federal judge is not an easy job, experts noted. The cases are complicated, and getting it right matters, even if that means taking more time than litigants would prefer.

The so-called six-month list shows a wide disparity among district judges when it comes to cases that have been waiting more than six months for a ruling. Most judges have few, if any, long-pending matters. A handful, like Judge Woodlock, have dozens.

A 2020 article published in the Cornell Law Review found that the six-month list seems to influence judges' behavior and, according to the University of Connecticut Law School professors who wrote the research paper, not always for the better.

"We demonstrate that the list leads judges to close substantially more cases and decide more motions in the week immediately before it is compiled," the authors wrote. "Moreover, we find suggestive evidence that the list has substantive consequences: in an effort to comply with the list, judges may be making more errors."

But those rationales can provide cold comfort to litigants.

"Even a case that might seem modest from an objective outsider's perspective is a really big deal to the people and the parties involved in it," Hofstra's Sample said. "Minor litigation is like minor surgery — it's only minor when it involves someone else."

Nora Freeman Engstrom, professor of law at Stanford University, said delays in cases are inevitable but called the lags in Soneeya's "simply incomprehensible," adding instances like hers could undermine public faith in the judiciary.

"Courts should provide redress, not the runaround," Engstrom said. "Americans need to have the confidence that their justice system will diligently resolve their disputes. Speed is central to justice. It is trite but true that 'justice delayed is justice denied.'"

In Commonwealth v. Hunt, case number SJC-03174, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed Soneeya's conviction for what the court described as the "brutal" murder of two women in 1982 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. She said she knew she was "different" by the time she was 4 or 5 years old, adding that she had been molested throughout her childhood. She said every day in her prison has been served in isolation.

"I can't really socialize with the other inmates because they do not see me as one of them because of the changes I have undergone; it's taboo. I'm on the outside trying to look in," Soneeya said. "With sports, I like soccer, but I can't play because the others are afraid to bump into me. I have to force myself into games of dominoes, but that leads to sexual comments and jokes."

She added: "People can't wrap their heads around the fact that I identify as a woman but I am in a man's prison. I don't feel safe here."

Roath said the DOC has cited security concerns in not transferring Soneeya to a female prison. She has received feminine care items, therapy treatments and other care, he said, but the DOC has "stopped short of the care that would be most meaningful" to his client.

A DOC representative declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. In 2022, the parties held a status conference in which Soneeya's lawyers again expressed her desire to be transferred and have gender-affirming surgery. Judge Woodlock asked for further briefing, according to the docket, and said the court "will thereafter set the matter down for further status and scheduling to resolve any remaining disputes."

In July, a handwritten note was filed from Soneeya, asking for an update on the status of her case. Roath followed weeks later with his own letter to Judge Woodlock, writing that "the profound delay in a ruling from this court has caused and continues to cause great harm to Ms. Soneeya."

"Given the 16 years that have now passed since Ms. Soneeya first filed her claim in 2007 and the lack of relief she has experienced despite repeated favorable constitutional findings from this court, the need for a final adjudication in this action is acute," the letter states.

Soneeya told Law360 that she hopes to get gender-affirming surgery, even as she acknowledged it does not "fix everything" and there are sure to be complications. She said she might have the opportunity to make real friends and connections in a women's prison and wants the chance to give back to society by helping transgender kids and adults.

Asked what she would say to Judge Woodlock if given the chance, Soneeya replied, "I have suffered enough."

--Editing by Philip Shea and Alex Hubbard.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect that one of the outstanding cases was recently resolved.

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