In open court Madison County Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth asked deep questions about the contest between Brad Lakin and Paul Weiss for control of class actions, but he let them answer behind closed doors.
Though Ruth began a March 24 hearing by rattling off 10 questions with obvious potential for embarrassing answers, he chose to spare the lawyers any embarrassment.
He sent Lakin and Weiss away with their legal teams for private conversation.
Later he summoned the lawyers to his chambers for more private conversation.
Finally Ruth signed an order that no one but he and the lawyers can understand.
His action matched Associate Judge Ralph Mendelsohn, who earlier that day issued an order that depended on a document the lawyers didn't want in the record.
As a result, Madison County taxpayers remain ignorant about individuals and events that have shaped justice in their courthouse for 10 years.
In 1999, Brad Lakin and his father Tom Lakin, of the Lakin Law Firm in Wood River, teamed with Weiss's firm, Freed and Weiss of Chicago.
Weiss brought to the partnership a wealth of class action experience, and the Lakins brought a wealth of local knowledge.
They agreed to split fees evenly in all cases, but their accounting distinguished between class actions they proposed and class actions that judges had certified.
Judges who had certified their class actions appointed both firms as class counsel.
In 2006, after federal prosecutors charged Tom Lakin with drug and sex crimes, the partnership broke down.
Brad Lakin fired class action lawyer Richard Burke, who started associating with Weiss in competition against Lakin.
Burke sued Lakin in federal court, Lakin sued Freed and Weiss in Madison County, and Freed and Weiss sued Lakin in Cook County.
Last year they resolved the disputes and executed a settlement agreement.
They resumed cooperating in cases where both firms served as class counsel.
Soon they resumed bickering, and in December the dispute turned nastier than ever.
Fight breaks out in Jersey over Sprint
In federal court at Newark, N.J., Weiss led a team that settled a class action against telephone company Sprint over early termination fees.
The settlement included customers that Weiss hadn't originally included, and Lakin believed he already represented them in a Madison County class action.
Lakin asked Judge Ruth to stop a preliminary approval hearing in progress at Newark, but Ruth didn't stop it.
At year's end the split widened, as Lakin fired class action lawyer Jeffrey Millar.
Like Burke, Millar began associating with Weiss in competition against Lakin.
In January Lakin moved to disqualify Weiss as counsel in the New Jersey case.
Lakin claimed Weiss ran a "reverse auction" by rushing to settle with Sprint for less than Lakin would have obtained in Madison County.
Lakin claimed Weiss rushed because he knew Illinois regulators would soon charge him with misconduct.
Weiss answered that Tod Lewis, a former Freed and Weiss lawyer now on Lakin's team, filed false charges against him to help Lakin keep control of class actions.
From March 12 to March 17, U.S. District Judge Jose Linares of Newark presided over 17 hours of argument over the Sprint settlement.
As of March 24 he had not reached a decision.
Back in Madison County
Meanwhile in Madison County, Millar had moved to substitute himself for the Lakin firm as class counsel against H & R Block and Allstate.
In the H & R case, Mendelsohn ruled that Millar could represent plaintiff Lorie Marshall as an individual but Lakin would continue representing her as class representative.
In the Allstate case, Ruth flatly denied Millar's motion, leaving Lakin in charge of the Allstate suit.
Next, Lakin moved to disqualify Weiss from both cases.
In Mendelsohn's court on the 24th, Lakin lawyer Dan Cohen said Millar sent an e-mail advising Lakin lawyers that they could communicate with Marshall only through him.
"We do not trust Mr. Millar to adequately or appropriately filter our communication to her," Cohen said.
He said Freed and Weiss might try to settle the suit in another court.
He said class counsel has a fiduciary duty to the class and Millar doesn't.
He said Marshall is under a confidentiality order and Millar isn't.
"She can't fulfill her mission to the class," Cohen said.
Mendelsohn said class counsel can contact Marshall directly and so can Millar.
He said there was a possible misunderstanding of his previous order and said he would enforce the order strictly and quickly if anyone violated it.
Next, Cohen asked Mendelsohn to enter an order preventing Weiss from settling claims of the class in any other court.
Cohen called Weiss to the stand and asked if he believed he could settle elsewhere.
"There is no easy answer to that question," Weiss said. "This motion is basically a figment of your imagination."
Cohen asked if he recalled that attorneys in a conference call agreed to stipulate that they wouldn't settle elsewhere.
Weiss said yes.
Cohen asked Weiss if lawyers revised a draft to accommodate his desires.
"This was to accommodate your desire," Weiss said.
Cohen quoted an e-mail, and Burke objected on behalf of Weiss.
Burke said, "They said you will sign or we will file for a temporary restraining order."
"Now they want to make it relevant. They're putting the cart before the horse," Burke said.
Mendelsohn asked how it was relevant, and Cohen referred him to Weiss's response.
Burke said, "A second irrelevant document doesn't make the first document relevant."
Cohen asked Weiss if he communicated with Brad Lakin before he settled with Sprint.
Weiss said he reached out with phone calls and e-mails but received no response.
"What more do you want me to do?" Weiss said.
Cohen asked when he told Lakin he would broaden the class.
Weiss said, "Little did I know that you were negotiating at the same time."
Burke: No more 'back alley thuggery'
Cohen asked about New Jersey and Burke objected that Cohen wanted Mendelsohn to second guess the judge and assume something improper happened.
Burke said, "That is up to that court. You have no jurisdiction."
Cohen said, "That's the same thing they argued to Judge Ruth after they hijacked that case. We are here saying not again, not in this case."
Burke said, "I have had just about enough. They lost the Hall case because they were belligerent and arrogant and they threw it away.
"Maybe years ago Madison County was a back alley where these people could carry out their thuggery but not any more."
Cohen asked Weiss if he could assure the court he wouldn't settle elsewhere.
Weiss said, "I won't do anything without this court's approval."
Cohen nevertheless pressed for an injunction.
Brad Lakin, speaking for the first time, said a January 2008 order would resolve it.
Burke objected that it wasn't relevant and it wasn't noticed.
Lakin said it was the settlement agreement as redacted.
Mendelsohn asked if he wanted to admit the whole agreement or the attachment.
The lawyers started speaking in code.
Burke said the attachment applies if there is no order and added, "We have an order."
Cohen said it applied to this case and Allstate.
Burke said that had nothing to do with this, and added that other parties should see it.
Cohen said, "They aren't appointed class counsel."
Mendelsohn told them to file it and he would reconsider by written objection.
In closing argument Burke said Lakin made false accusations.
"Everything the Lakin law firm has done is shameful in this case," he said.
"When they changed their name they should have changed it to belligerence, arrogance and greed, LLC," he said.
Mendelsohn asked him to keep his closing statement to the evidence.
Burke said, "There wasn't any. It's a smear campaign."
Mendelsohn denied disqualification of Weiss, ruling that Lakin didn't meet the threshold of evidence.
After lunch, the lawyers reported to Judge Ruth.
Same day, different judge
Ruth announced that he didn't want any tone or attitude.
He said that if anyone alleged misconduct, he had an obligation to report it to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.
He said there were no docket entries in the case for two years.
He said the case was 10 years old and they would resolve it soon.
He said he wanted answers to questions.
For instance, how did the lawyers get together in the first place? What happened in Sprint? Did Weiss notify Lakin in advance?
Who moved the preliminary approval from January 2009 to Dec. 4? How? Why?
Was Lakin notified that the Hall class was included in New Jersey? If not, why? Was there a prior agreement for it not to occur? Was there a prior agreement in this case?
There hasn't been a docket in this case since 2007. Who worked on it? When will it be ready for trial?
Ruth sent the lawyers out and returned to his chambers.
He held no further proceedings in open court.
Late in the day he began calling lawyers into his chambers.
Finally he signed an order:
"By agreement, and per court order, counsel for pltf class shall submit Pretrial Order in form agreed to, by no later than Friday, 3/27/09, conforming to Pretrial Order No. 1 Template attachment to Lakin Law Firm-Freed Weiss Agreement of Jan. 2008, which the Court will enter by agreement.
"By agreement, nothing contained in this order, or in the Pretrial Order to follow, shall be construed as acquiescence that Lakin Law Firm and/or LakinChapman authorized Paull Weiss/Free Weiss to file any competing litigation against Allstate.
"In approving this agreement, the Court has reviewed and considered the business records affidavit of Brad Lakin and 1-page attachment thereto."
Ruth was contacted for comment, but had not returned a phone call by press time.