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Judge in Elon Musk lawsuit against OpenAI disqualifies himself

Not two weeks ago, the San Francisco Superior Court determined Elon Musk's closely watched litigation over generative artificial intelligence should be designated as "complex civil litigation" and assigned to a single judge for all purposes.

On Monday, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman - the single judge assigned to the case - entered a two-paragraph order disqualifying himself from continuing to preside.

The surprise order came after Musk's lawyers filed a short motion Friday, requesting disqualification because Schulman allegedly was "prejudiced against Plaintiff, his attorneys, and/or the interests of Plaintiff or his attorneys, such that Plaintiff cannot have a fair and impartial trial or hearing..."

No explanation of what caused the alleged prejudice was included in the motion or in an accompanying declaration.

Schulman granted the motion without a hearing and without disclosing or discussing the nature of the prejudice.

In his lawsuit, Musk seeks a determination that Sam Altman and Gregory Brockman (together with Musk the co-founders of OpenAI, Inc.) breached a "Founding Agreement" that required OpenAI to function for nonprofit purposes and for the good of "humanity."

According to Musk, the defendants are using OpenAI to pursue a strategy that is more about making vast amounts of money than about benefitting humanity.

Musk seeks wide-ranging relief that would steer OpenAI - the owner and developer of ChatGPT - back to its original mission and purpose. Musk asked for the case to be designated a complex case so it would be handled by a single judge. Altman and OpenAI opposed the designation.

San Francisco has a "complex civil litigation" track, and two judges are currently assigned to hear cases on that track: Schulman and Judge Andrew Y.S. Cheng.

While Schulman's disqualification makes it seems likely the new judge will be Cheng, no appointment has yet been made, according to court records.

The changing of judges may further delay the resolution of two potentially dispositive motions filed by defendants. One of the motions is a demurrer urging the court to dismiss Musk's complaint because even if all the facts presented by Musk are true, they don't support a viable legal claim.

The defendants' central contention is there is no "Founding Agreement" and therefore no contract that could be breached. They argue what Musk calls a Founding Agreement is basically OpenAI's nonprofit charter, supplemented by an exchange of emails among the co-founders discussing how the company would operate.

The demurrer and related motion were scheduled for resolution on April 24, but that date was scrubbed when the case was designated complex. No new date has yet been calendared.

Counsel for Musk did not immediately accept an invitation to comment on the disqualification.

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