Conflict disclosed in Hartford vapor case

By Steve Korris | Oct 26, 2006

Hartford residents trying to make sense of a struggle over the right to represent them in court must now figure out whether they need protection from their attorneys.

The firm of Goldenberg, Heller, Antognoli, Rowland, Short & Gori has disclosed to Hartford residents and property owners a potential conflict of interest between its class action suit over refinery vapors and a separate suit over individual claims.

In August Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack granted preliminary approval to Goldenberg's class action settlement of claims against Shell Oil affiliate Equilon Enterprises and refinery owner Premcor Group.

Goldenberg already represented 120 Hartford property owners in a single suit over vapor claims, though the firm had not originally sought to certify the claims as a class action.

A team of Missouri attorneys who had proposed a class action in a separate suit, with Katherine Sparks as lead plaintiff, tried to block the settlement.

Stack had certified the Missouri team's case as a class action last year, but later he granted a motion to reconsider.

While he reconsidered, the Goldenberg firm negotiated a class action settlement with Equilon and Premcor.

The Goldenberg firm incorporated the settlement into a new lawsuit with Harry Goforth as class representative.

The settlement did not involve other companies that have owned and operated the refinery and its transportation systems over the years.

The Missouri attorneys protested that only they could pursue a class action. They asked Stack to certify their class immediately, but Stack did not certify it.

In August Stack granted preliminary approval to Goldenberg's settlement.

The firm mailed notices to Hartford residents and property owners. It advised them that they belonged to a plaintiff class and it outlined the settlement proposal.

The Missouri team asked the Illinois Supreme Court to enter a supervisory order against Stack, but the Supreme Court denied the petition Oct. 13.

On that date Stack signed an order directing Goldenberg to send another notice to Hartford residents and property owners.

The letter stated that, "While there is another class action pending known as the Sparks case, which includes defendants other than the settling defendants, no other class has been certified and there is no proposed class settlement as to any other defendant."

The letter said the firm also represents lead plaintiff "Abert" and 119 other property owners in Hartford suing a number of defendants in addition to Equilon and Premcor in the Abert case.

It said, "Unless you are one of the 120 property owners, and you have independently engaged us to represent you in the Abert case, we do not represent you against these other defendants."

It said the firm has discussed settlement with other Abert defendants.

It said, "If you are a member of the Class but not one of our individual plaintiffs in the Abert case, you would have the right to pursue claims against the other defendants on your own behalf."

It said, "We do not believe our representation of our individual clients in the Abert case affects our ability to represent the class in the Goforth case. In addition, we do not believe our responsibilities as settlement class counsel in the Goforth case will be materially limited by our responsibilities as counsel for our individual clients in the Abert case."

It said, "Nonetheless, we are required by the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct to disclose the potential conflict to you and obtain your consent to our continued representation of the Abert clients."

As a practical matter, Goldenberg already has their consent. Those who see a conflict must object in writing, or the firm will assume they have no objection.

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