Two days after taking office, Madison County Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth played referee in a rumble between rival attorneys who used to be friends.
Ruth, who was sworn into office Dec. 1, denied attorney Brad Lakin's emergency motion for a restraining order against the Chicago firm of Freed and Weiss and communications company Sprint at a Dec. 3 hearing.
Ruth witnessed renewal of a conflict between Lakin and Richard Burke, who teamed with Freed and Weiss after Lakin fired him.
The new judge inherited the case from retiring judge Nicholas Byron, who certified a national class action against Sprint and appointed Lakin's firm as class counsel.
According to the complaint, Sprint collected excess charges from class representative Jessica Hall and other customers on electronic fund transfers.
Lakin sued Sprint in 2004, while teaming with Freed and Weiss.
Two years ago, Lakin fired Burke and Lakin's partnership with Freed and Weiss ended.
Burke sued Lakin, Lakin sued Freed and Weiss, and Freed and Weiss sued Lakin.
Last year, they settled the disputes and resumed sharing cases.
On Dec. 2, Freed and Weiss moved for preliminary approval of a New Jersey action against Nextel and AT&T.
On the same day, Lakin filed his emergency motion, and at a hearing the next day, Lakin pleaded to maintain the status quo of Hall v. Sprint as a federal court in New Jersey was set to approve a competing class action.
Lakin attorney Dan Cohen asked Ruth to sign an order prohibiting the settlement that would affect the Hall class until an evidentiary hearing could be held.
"They are trying to preempt your jurisdiction in this case," Cohen told Ruth about Freed and Weiss's amended complaint that included the Hall class in their class.
When Burke entered an appearance for Freed and Weiss he announced the settlement was done and signed.
"This is a moot motion," he said of Lakin's temporary restraining order motion.
Lakin asked when the settlement was entered.
Burke said, "It was entered today."
Lakin said, "The motion was filed. Has it been entered?"
Burke told Ruth, "I'm not going to respond to him."
Ruth said, "Well, respond to me." He asked when it was entered.
Burke handed Ruth a stipulation, but Cohen said it wasn't effective without approval.
Cohen said, "That is what they are trying to ram through today in New Jersey."
Ruth took the group to chambers, called the New Jersey judge and left a message.
Back in court, Ruth asked Burke to address the issue of his conflict.
Burke said, "I am one of the parties you are trying to restrain."
"I'm an attorney in that case in federal court in New Jersey, okay, so I can also represent myself. I might add, you have no jurisdiction over me."
Ruth said, "I think I might have jurisdiction as you are an officer of the court of the state of Illinois."
Burke said, "I may very well be, but that doesn't give you jurisdiction to restrain me in a case pending in New Jersey."
He said, "What interest is conflicted?"
To determine a conflict, he said, Ruth would have to determine whether Hall's rights have been adversely affected.
"My interest is adverse to the Lakin law firm's, because it's a fight over attorney's fees," Burke said. "If the settlement is fair and adequate, then no interests of any class members have been adversely affected."
Testing the new judge
Ruth said he wanted to ferret out what was going on in New Jersey.
Burke said, "I can tell you."
Ruth said, "No, pardon me. I'll be asking the questions here."
Burke said Ruth might breach his fiduciary duty if he granted an order.
Ruth said, "I know what I am being asked and I know my fiduciary duties."
Ruth said the standard for a temporary restraining order is to show irreparable harm without legal remedy.
"I do believe that there is legal remedy," he said.
"This court is without jurisdiction to enjoin a federal court," he said and denied Lakin's motion.