West Virginia Record

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Putnam man accuses family law judge, staff of mischief

By Lawrence Smith | Feb 3, 2012

WINFIELD – A Putnam family law judge and his staff are accused of legally taking more than $10,000 from a Scott Depot man to pay for his alleged child support arrearage.

William H. "Chip" Watkins is named as a co-defendant in a writ of prohibition filed by Terry K. Hamm. In his writ filed Jan. 17 in Putnam Circuit Court, Hamm alleges Watkins overstepped his bounds when he, first, ordered him detained after showing up late for a hearing, then ordering the $11,000 Hamm's father posted as bond forfeited without a hearing.

According to his writ, Hamm was scheduled to appear before Watkins on Nov. 17 to answer a show-cause petition filed the month earlier by the state Department of Health and Human Services' Bureau for Child Support Enforcement. In its petition, BCSE alleged Hamm was in arrears $10,544.62 to Bobbie Lee Braley, the mother of his son.

Court records show Hamm on Sept. 21, 2002, was ordered to pay Braley $188 to support his son. In his response to BCSE's petition, Hamm cited his two part-time jobs paying minimum wage as his inability to pay.

Also, Hamm in his Nov. 14 answer said he "was unaware that he could've sought modification of his child support obligation from the Court at that time because of erroneous information provided to him by DHHR." Furthermore, Hamm asked that Watkins order BCSE to recalculate the amount to pay Braley based on his current financial situation.

Hamm, who graduated 2009 from West Virginia University with a bachelor of science in business administration, was interning at Hurricane attorney Joe Reeder's office while going back to school to obtain an associate's degree in paralegal studies from Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College. Hamm mistakeningly informed Reeder the hearing was set for 4 p.m. on Nov. 17 when it was actually scheduled for 11 a.m.

According to the writ, sometime around noon Lori Mitchell, Watkins' case coordinator, called Reeder's office informing him Hamm missed his hearing, and that if he didn't appear in court by 3 p.m. that day, a capias would be issued for his arrest. About 1:30 p.m. both Hamm and Reeder appeared at "the window in family court and spoke with the staff concerning the scheduling mistake."

Fifteen minutes later, Watkins' bailiff appeared with an order sending him to jail. Since Diana Johnson, BSCE's attorney, was still in the courtroom when they arrived, Reeder asked that Watkins still hold the hearing on the show-cause petition.

After a few moments, Mitchell said that "there was nothing that could be done and that [Hamm] would be taken into custody. When Reeder again asked for a hearing, "Ms. Mitchell appeared from behind the door and angrily stated that [Hamm] and [Reeder] would not be seeing the Judge and scolded [Reeder] to 'get out now.'"

In his writ, Hamm says following Mitchell's "unprofessional outburst, which was witnessed by numerous litigants in the reception area" both he and Reeder "left peaceably with the bailiff."

At a time not specified, Hamm's father, Karl, arrived at the courthouse, and posted $11,000 to secure his release. Though detained, Hamm says in his writ he was never incarcerated.

According to the writ, Watkins never rescheduled a hearing on BCSE's show-cause petition. Instead, without providing either he or Reeder any prior notice, Hamm says Watkins on Jan. 3 ordered the $11,000 forfeited to BSCE to pay for the arrearage.

By doing so, Hamm says in his writ Watkins not only violated his right to due process, but also engaged in an unlawful taking of property. Though he "readily admits and accepts responsibility for his failure to timely appear" for the Nov. 17 hearing, Hamm says Watkins erred in not rescheduling a hearing which was the purpose of Hamm's father posting the $11,000 bond.

"Upon the issuance of the capias and jail commitment order," Hamm says in his writ, "Respondent Watkins made no determination that [Hamm] had any ability to comply with his prior support orders or that he willfully did not pay support in contemptuous disregard of the Court."

"In fact," Hamm added, "Respondent Watkins has made no specific finding that [Hamm] was even in contempt of court for non-compliance with his support obligations."

Putnam Circuit Judge Phillip M. Stowers, who has been assigned the case, has set Thursday, Feb. 24 for a hearing on Hamm's writ of prohibition. Braley, DHHR and BCSE are named as co-defendants.

Putnam Circuit Court case number 12-C-10

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