U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Williams has blocked a bid to drag the Illinois State Bar Association into an $8 billion class action against State Farm.
On Jan. 12, he quashed depositions that plaintiffs would have conducted on state bar members who evaluated Supreme Court candidate Lloyd Karmeier in 2004.
“Plaintiffs’ assertion that State Farm sought to pack the committee with its loyal members is lacking in support,” Williams wrote.
“Interference with the judicial evaluation process would make the evaluators of candidates, other lawyers, less likely to offer candid and frank evaluations, and thus would be less beneficial to the public,” he wrote.
Williams wrote that a lawyer who might later practice before a judge might be less likely to denounce a candidate if his evaluations could be made known.
He found “zero evidence” for Mark Hale’s claim that State Farm used evaluators April Troemper and Stanley Tucker in its alleged scheme to cheat voters.
Hale’s lawyers had conceded that point at a hearing on Jan. 8.
Williams found “very close to zero evidence” for Hale’s claim that evaluators Robert Shultz and Alan Sternberg were pawns of State Farm.
Shultz, now a vice president at State Farm, formerly represented the insurer for the Heyl Royster firm in Edwardsville.
Shultz briefed and argued Avery v. State Farm, a Supreme Court case that resulted in reversal of a billion dollar class action judgment.
Williams wrote that he recognized Shultz’s involvement in Avery but that he saw no evidence of improper motive, influence, and manipulation.
Nor did he see evidence of manipulation through Sternberg, former State Farm staff lawyer who had evaluated candidates since 1992.
Any inquiry into Shultz and Sternberg would be exploratory, he wrote.
“Further, as State Farm points out, the present case is not about the Illinois judicial evaluation process,” he wrote.
He disagreed with Hale’s position that Shultz and Sternberg should have recused themselves from the committee’s evaluation of Karmeier.
He wrote that when the committee evaluated Karmeier, the Supreme Court had already heard oral argument in Avery but had not issued a decision.
“Thus, the fact that Shultz and Sternberg worked on the Avery case that was pending at the time they sat on the judicial evaluation committee does not hint at impropriety because it is assumed committee members may later practice before a particular candidate,” he wrote.
“Also, there is no evidence that they knew at the time they were evaluating the candidates that the Avery case would even be before the potential victor as the Avery case was fully briefed and argued, and an opinion could have been issued at any time before or after the election,” he wrote.
Hale’s lawyers won a jury verdict for class representative Michael Avery of Louisiana in 1999, at Williamson County courthouse in Marion.
Avery claimed State Farm supplied inferior parts for crash repairs.
Fifth District appellate judges affirmed the judgment in 2001, in an opinion by Justice Gordon Maag of Edwardsville.
In 2004, Karmeier defeated Maag for the Fifth District seat on the Supreme Court.
In 2005, the Supreme Court reversed the Avery judgment.
In 2011, the Supreme Court denied a petition to reopen the case for further examination of State Farm’s role in Karmeier’s campaign.
Hale sued State Farm in federal court in 2012, claiming it twice concealed from the Supreme Court the extent of its involvement in Karmeier’s campaign.
Hale seeks to recover the judgment plus interest, with triple damages under civil provisions of federal racketeering law.
He served subpoenas on Shultz, Sternberg, Troemper and Tucker last year.
The state bar retained Michael Nester of Belleville to resist depositions of Tucker and Troemper. State Farm’s lawyers resisted on behalf of Shultz and Sternberg.
The hearing on the dispute turned into a rout.
For Hale, Steven Blonder of Chicago said Tucker’s firm held themselves out to the public as local counsel for State Farm.
He said Troemper worked in the same firm as Shultz.
“That’s our basis,” he said.
Williams said, “For accusing them of being involved in manipulating and abusing the process?”
Blonder said, “We are saying State Farm was involved.”
Williams told him he alleged he claimed to have hard evidence that these four manipulated the process. “That’s the phrase you use,” Williams said.
Blonder said, “It may well be a phrase in our brief.”
Williams said, “It is. You accuse them of conspiring with State Farm to abuse the IBSA process.”
Blonder said, “The lawyers may not have known.”
Williams asked if there was any evidence they knew they were being used. Blonder said he didn’t know their specific intent.
Williams quoted from the brief that State Farm abused the evaluation process.
He asked Blonder, “How can you say that they didn’t know about it? How can they be instruments in this abuse?”
Blonder searched for softer words but Williams cut him off.
Williams said, “It’s not that State Farm manipulated them? It was all just an accident? They unknowingly furthered this abuse?”
Blonder said yes.
Williams snapped, “All four of them?”
Blonder said no. He said he would forego depositions of Tucker and Troemper.
Williams asked if he had hard evidence that Shultz and Sternberg conspired with State Farm or if it was simply that they should have recused themselves.
Blonder said, “The latter.”
Williams said, “I find that to be a substantial walk back from what you accuse them of having done in your brief.”
He called the brief inflammatory, a word he had used to describe another of Hale’s briefs at a hearing in December.
On that occasion, Williams told Blonder to tone down his rhetoric.
Williams manages discovery for District Judge David Herndon.