We have quotes from his order following Anita Lee’s Sun Herald story in the case of Balius v State Farm:
Judge L.T. Senter Jr. sternly reiterated his order that State Farm and policyholders’ attorneys stop their “internecine and acrimonious warfare” and focus on resolving their cases.
Senter has issued an opinion that grants a request for relief to policyholders’ attorneys Lumpkin & Reeves of Biloxi, who represent Craig and Carol Balius. They are suing the insurance company over uncovered Katrina damage.
Senter said State Farm has misconstrued his opinion in another case and is wrongfully withholding pre-trial discovery, or company information requested by Lumpkin and Reeves to prepare the Balius’ case.
The judge had previously disqualified law firms formerly associated with attorney Dickie Scruggs on Scruggs’ cases against State Farm because he unethically paid two potential witnesses. Senter’s disqualification order applied to Lumpkin & Reeves, which can’t take on former Scruggs cases.
A law firm representing State Farm – Webb, Sanders & Williams of Tupelo – then refused to work with Lumpkin & Reeves on the non-Scruggs Balius case.
Senter said he was “tempted to impose sanctions” on State Farm’s counsel for their “cavalier refusal to honor their discovery obligations,” but Lumpkin & Reeves did not request sanctions.
Senter closed by letting the attorneys know their focus had better shift to resolving cases based on their merits.
He wrote, “Anything short of this will not be tolerated.”
This is what Judge Senter wrote in his order today:
What is especially disturbing is that defense counsel have taken it upon themselves to construe (or in this instance misconstrue) these orders, and on that ground have refused to conduct discovery or to meet their obligations to respond to discovery requests. They have acted unilaterally without seeking any guidance from the Court, and thwarted the Plaintiffs’ legitimate discovery efforts, all without filing a motion for disqualification.
The Judge continues:
A reading of the referenced communications from State Farm’s counsel (May 15, May 23, and June 9) bears out these assertions. Substituting their judgment in dispositive terms crosses the line into the field of impropriety.
The final paragraph in a recent memorandum opinion in Abney v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., No. 1:07cv711 (docket entry ) gains added significance in light of this conduct:
In the hundreds of cases brought against State Farm by the SKG I have watched the property damage insurance claims, the contract claims at the heart [of] these cases, being pushed off their rightful place at center stage by the escalating heat of the battles among State Farm, Renfroe and the SKG. This conflagration has not advanced the interests of the policyholders nor the ultimate resolution of these cases. In many instances, the litigants’ interests have been among the battlefield casualties. With the SKG having been disqualified as counsel in all the Court’s remaining State Farm cases, it is my sincere hope that the type of normal, professional, and focused advocacy necessary to resolve the individual merits of the cases still outstanding will presently come to the fore.
That hope is not being realized in the instant case. It is unreasonable for defense counsel to take the position that Lumpkin & Reeves’s disqualification in SKG/KLG cases carries over to this case or any other case in which SKG/KLG never appeared.
The Court is tempted to impose sanctions for defense counsels’ breach of the principle espoused in Abney and their cavalier refusal to honor their discovery obligations. However, that would defeat the purpose of the above admonishment. There is no motion for sanctions before the Court in this case, just as there has never been a motion for disqualification. Still, all counsel are reminded that the Court will not hesitate to resort to Fed. R. Civ. P. 16, 37, or any other applicable authority to deter unjust delay. It is time and past time for the internecine and acrimonious warfare among the attorneys to stop and for the focus to shift to the task of resolving the many remaining cases on their merits. Anything short of this will not be tolerated.
Here is the Lumpkin and Reeves motion for Senter’s DQ clarification on the Balius case.