Race-bias case becomes more than how it began

OXFORD – When Myrtle Lynn Prewitt of Starkville sued her employer in 2006, it looked like a run-of-the-mill discrimination dispute.
Three years later, the twists, turns and delays have stirred the temperament of U.S. District Chief Judge Michael P. Mills, with warnings about sanctions against her and her attorney brother.
The defendant, Mississippi State University, has been watching from the sidelines, making appropriate responses and filing appropriate motions.
The jury trial, expected to last two to three days, was set to begin today, then Aug. 25 in Aberdeen before Magistrate Judge Jerry A. Davis. But now, Mills has taken charge for a January 2010 trial.
The latest twist came Friday, when Mills allowed her brother, George Dunbar Prewitt, to represent her.
“However, vexing though these matters may be,” Mills wrote in allowing him in, “it is the court’s duty to rule with reasonable discretion, sometimes mixed with more or less doses of patience.”
Two days earlier, Mills had warned the two about their conduct, especially the brother’s acting as a quasi-attorney in the case.
“This court refrains from sanctioning her at this juncture only because she is not an attorney,” Mills wrote. But any further offenses they might commit “will result in a severe penalty up to and including dismissal” of the case without ability to file again.
It all began with her lawsuit filed Dec. 13, 2006. Prewitt, who is black, claimed her white male counterparts had been paid more than she had.
She was represented by Tupelo attorneys Nicole H. McLaughlin and Jim D. Waide. The trial was set for June 23, 2008.
The case was transferred to Judge Sharion Aycock after she took the bench in October 2007.
McLaughlin and Waide pulled out Nov. 5, 2007, citing unresolved differences with their client.
By February 2008, Prewitt asked the court to appoint counsel but was denied. The trial was reset for Sept. 22.
By early September, Aycock held a conference call with the parties to talk about the lawsuit. It became clear Prewitt’s brother was interfering with the case, but he refused to enter as an attorney, although he continued helping his sister.
Prewitt wrote the judge, questioning her objectivity because she had been cited as an outstanding MSU alumnus. Aycock withdrew.
Two days later, the court prohibited the brother from advising his sister in any way. Trial was reset for Jan. 12, 2009.
Prewitt asked for more time and hired Columbus attorney William Bambach on Oct. 2.
With new deadlines, the case proceeded relatively orderly, noted Mills’ order Friday.
Four days before trial, Prewitt asked for more time and a settlement conference. The court said OK, but no settlement was achieved and trial was set for today.
On May 19, Prewitt asked for more time, but “finding that she failed to give good cause,” the court said no.
The next day, her attorney brother faxed a request to represent her. Bambach asked to withdraw as her counsel.
Two days later, the court asked which attorney she wanted. Prewitt answered with a faxed letter saying she didn’t understand the court’s order.
Bambach was allowed to withdraw and George Prewitt was ordered to make an official affidavit to represent her. He did so Thursday.
He promptly asked to continue the trial date.
“This court is concerned that the plaintiff and her now new counsel, her brother Mr. Prewitt, are more interested in hamstringing the judicial process than in resolving this matter; that they enjoy the chase, more than any particular destination,” Mills observed.
But in the end, the judge wrote Friday, an opportunity presents itself to move things along.
Her brother may enter as her attorney, and the trial moves to Jan. 11, 2010.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.

Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal