About the time Family Court Judge Stefany Miley was sworn in three years ago, a widow sued the judge and her law partners for malpractice and the lawsuit was one of a handful hidden from the public.
Now, as Miley seeks higher office, the District Court judge who presided over the malpractice case said last week that he sealed it by mistake and plans to unseal the lawsuit unless attorneys can convince him to do otherwise.
Judge Doug Herndon said he didn't realize he had sealed the case in error until the Review-Journal inquired about it, and that he plans to call the attorneys on the Miley case back into court to justify the sealing of the case.
Herndon explained that the lawsuit was settled before he held any hearings, that he wasn't familiar with the case as a result and that when he signed the dismissal order -- one of dozens he said he signs each week -- he didn't realize the order included a request to permanently seal the case.
"I would have never known about the case until I was asked to dismiss it. ... I have never sealed a case, but I apparently signed off on it," Herndon said.
The case was settled more than two years ago, but limited records from that case -- and dozens of other sealed lawsuits -- are available for the first time on the Clark County District Court's Web site.
Previously, virtually no information was available on sealed lawsuits. Review-Journal stories last year prompted the state Supreme Court in January to enact rules to limit sealed cases, but the rules don't affect cases sealed years earlier.
Also, in response to the Review-Journal stories suggesting that court personnel may have sealed more documents than the presiding judges ordered, courthouse administrators earlier this year started to either unseal or "properly seal" sealed lawsuits, using computer software that wasn't available until last year.
As a result, some information from about 69 sealed cases is available for the first time, and clerks plan to provide in the months ahead more information on approximately 229 additional sealed lawsuit dating back to the early 1990s, court administrators said.
Dates, motions, secondary litigants and their aliases, whether settlements were reached, the names of judges and attorneys, and other information, are now available for properly sealed lawsuits.
Since the Miley case was properly sealed, such information has become available online for that lawsuit.
The order sealing the file of case documents still stood last week, but court personnel, through an apparent misunderstanding, showed that file to the Review-Journal. The file included the complaint against the law firm, its vague response to the complaint, and a handful of other documents filed before an out-of-court settlement was reached.
The complaint shows that Miley, a first-term Family Court judge who is in a contested campaign to replace District Court Judge Elizabeth Halverson, and her law firm were sued by Valerie Carr-Blum of Las Vegas just days after Miley took the bench in January 2005.
The lawsuit, which was quickly sealed from public view, alleged that Carr-Blum's husband, at the time of his impending death, signed legal documents to keep the couple's home out of probate, but that the law firm didn't file the records at the courthouse before he died, as required for Carr-Blum to assume sole ownership of the house.
The man died five days after he signed the documents in the presence of the law firm's paralegal, according to court records.
Kate Kruse, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who teaches professional ethics, said that for a lawyer to miss a deadline at court, resulting in a client being hurt, is a "pretty serious oversight."
In a situation like the Miley case, it's possible the law firm had no way of knowing when its client would die and, therefore, had no idea that its deadline was imminent, Kruse said.
If the probate documents were ready to file at the courthouse after Blum signed them, "best practice" would have been to file the documents as soon as possible, Kruse said.
"If everything was all done, you have to wonder why it wasn't filed? Does the law firm not have consistent procedures in place to get these things done?" Kruse said. "They may have thought they had more time than they did. They should have gotten it filed before the husband died; but they wouldn't know when that would be, so it's a judgement call."
The law firm reached a settlement with Carr-Blum about a year after the lawsuit was filed, and asked in writing that Herndon permanently seal the case.
Herndon said he signed the dismissal notice without realizing it included a request to seal.
Carr-Blum couldn't be reached for comment.
Miley said last week that she couldn't recall details of the lawsuit and, therefore, declined to discuss it.
Miley said she thought the lawsuit had been unsealed recently, and suggested the Review-Journal go to the courthouse and look at the case for more information about it.
"I haven't looked at the case in years. To answer your questions with any specificity, I would have to read the case."
She was mistaken. As of Friday afternoon, the case remained sealed from public view, according to court records.
Miley said she also could not recall whether the Miley Law Firm or Carr-Blum wanted the lawsuit sealed.
"I couldn't even respond to that. ... I let the lawyers handle everything," she said.
As a candidate for District Court, Miley said she believes judges should follow state law when considering whether to seal a lawsuit.
"The law is what the law is, and that is made by the Legislature," she said.
However, with regard to the new rules for sealing lawsuits, the judge is mistaken. The rules were enacted by the state Supreme Court after members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee -- Committee Chairman Mark Amodei, R-Carson City; Sen. Mike McGinness, R-Fallon; Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas; and Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks -- last year killed a bill that would have limited judges' authority to seal civil cases.
Contact reporter Frank Geary at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0277.