NEWARK – U.S. District Judge Jose Linares has chosen not to disqualify Richard Burke of St. Louis and Paul Weiss of Chicago as class counsel in a suit they settled with telephone company Sprint.
On Aug. 27 Linares denied a motion from Brad Lakin of Wood River and Phil Bock of Chicago to disqualify Burke and Weiss due to conflicts of interest.
Linares summarized the situation as "an attorney squabble resulting from the acrimonious dissolution of a prior law firm."
Burke used to work for Lakin Law Firm, and Weiss teamed with the Lakin firm in Madison County class actions from 1999 to 2006.
After Lakin fired Burke and Weiss ended his partnership with Lakin, Burke and Weiss filed a class action in New Jersey over Sprint's early termination fee.
Burke and Weiss defined the class in a way that didn't overlap with a class that they and Lakin had succeeded in certifying in Madison County on behalf of Jessica Hall.
When Sprint lawyers reached a settlement agreement with Burke and Weiss, they expanded the class to include the Hall class.
Lakin and Bock objected on behalf of Hall and accused Burke and Weiss of running a reverse auction.
A reverse auction occurs when lawyers pursuing similar claims in different courts bargain to lower prices in order to settle before another firm can settle.
Lakin told Linares he could have settled in Madison County on better terms.
Lakin moved to disqualify Burke and Weiss for running a reverse auction.
Lakin further moved to disqualify Weiss for representing a client in New Jersey while remaining on record as counsel in Hall's case.
In the next twist, former Lakin lawyer Jeff Millar declared himself Hall's attorney and moved to withdraw her objection to the New Jersey settlement.
Hall then discharged Millar and swore that Bock had been her lawyer all along.
Lakin and Bock moved to strike Millar's motion to withdraw Hall's objection and they asked for sanctions against Millar.
Linares, who had granted preliminary approval to the settlement last year, tried to hold a fairness hearing in March but found himself acting as referee in a slugfest.
He continued the fairness hearing to October and began sorting out the squabble.
He began his Aug. 27 order by denying the motions of Lakin and Bock to strike Millar's objection and impose sanctions on Millar.
Millar filed the objection before Hall discharged him, Linares wrote.
"At the time that Millar filed a motion to withdraw on behalf of Hall, he properly represented her," he wrote.
"He was under no duty to gain her affirmative consent for every action he took on her behalf," he wrote.
Then he denied the motion to disqualify Burke and Weiss, finding no antagonism or structural conflict of interest between the Hall class and the class in his court.
Both plaintiffs can recover because they assert identical claims, he wrote.
He wrote that Hall can object to the settlement and has properly done so.
He shrugged off the claim that Weiss remained as counsel in the Hall case.
"Hall offers no evidence to prove that Weiss either failed to represent her interest or failed in his duties to the class due to his alleged dual representation," he wrote.
"Though Weiss never filed a motion to withdraw from the Illinois litigation, all signs indicate that he was effectively frozen out of any further interaction with Hall or with the Bock Group litigating the Hall case," he wrote.