Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stanley v. United States Steel Corporation

Sep 22: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, Case Nos. 08-2311 & 082312. The Appeals Court explained that Malcolm Moulton challenges the district court’s approval of a settlement agreement arising from a class action filed by the neighbors of a steel mill owned by United States Steel Corporation. A group of other class members, led by Ron Anderson, join Moulton’s objections, and separately challenge the district court’s management of the opt-out process and its handling of attorney Donnelly Hadden’s attempts to represent them. We affirm, except with respect to the district court’s approval of the attorney’s fee award, which we vacate and remand for further explanation.

In 2003, U.S. Steel purchased a steel mill bordering Ecorse and River Rouge, Michigan. At the time, the mill’s pollution-control equipment was in disrepair. After purchasing the mill, the company spent $65 million to upgrade the old pollution-control equipment and to buy new equipment. About a year after the purchase, several residents of Ecorse and River Rouge filed a class-action lawsuit against the company. The plaintiffs raised several tort and statutory claims, all to the effect that the mill wrongfully discharged harmful “metal-like dust and flakes” that settled on their real and personal property.

The case basically involves class action procedures and the conduct of attorney Hadden. In part, the Appeals Court rules, "At no point has Hadden offered evidence on the record that the 34 “missing” opt-out forms were mailed to Class Counsel. Lacking any evidence that these class members opted out, Hadden cannot demonstrate that an error occurred, much less that the district court abused its discretion by not correcting it. . . We also reject Hadden’s claim that the district court abused its discretion by not accepting opt-out forms that Hadden signed, purportedly at his clients’ request. We have serious doubts at the outset whether these clients requested that Hadden sign their form, or if they merely failed to respond to Hadden’s letter -- triggering Hadden’s 'automatic' opt out on his terms. Even setting this skepticism aside, we find none of his arguments persuasive. . .

"The Michigan Constitution’s guarantee of 'the right to prosecute . . . [a] suit . . . by an attorney,' Mich. Const. Art. I, § 13, does not save his argument. The Hadden clients who opted out of the suit had an attorney: Hadden. And those who remained in the class were adequately represented by court-approved Class Counsel."

Access the complete opinion (
click here).