Court Called Judicial Hellhole; Defenders Blast Complaints

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Mar. 25, 2013 12:00 am  

Kirk Johnson

Defense attorneys involved in class-action cases in Miller County Circuit Court have called it a “judicial hellhole,” while defenders insist that the complaints are only designed to keep plaintiffs from receiving the evidence they have a right to inspect.

In interviews with Arkansas Business and in hundreds of pages of filings in various court cases, defense attorneys cited a string of examples of nightmare justice in Miller County Circuit Court in Texarkana including:

  • One company said it spent 28,631 man-hours gathering "discovery" documents requested by plaintiffs' attorneys at a cost of more than $9 million.
  • Another company decided to settle its lawsuit after it was faced with discovery requests that would have cost as much as $45 million.
  • A third company said it didn't do business in Arkansas but couldn't get a ruling on its motion to be dismissed from a class-action case that only involved Arkansas residents.

The key complaint defendants have is that they don't receive timely hearings from Miller County Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson on issues of merit, jurisdiction and class status.

All the complaints about not receiving speedy justice stem from Johnson's court. The Miller County Circuit Clerk's office said the county has three circuit judges, Johnson, Brent Haltom and Joe Griffin. The office said a computer randomly and evenly assigns the lawsuits to the judge's courtroom. But Johnson ended up with most of the class actions because original insurance-related lawsuits with dozens of defendants had been spun off into separate cases. And since Johnson had heard part of the cases, the spinoffs were kept in his court, the clerk's office said.

In the meantime, however, the local rules allow the discovery process to continue, leaving defendants with two options: spend millions to satisfy plaintiffs' attorneys' discovery demands or settle. Most have chosen to settle.

Three law firms have been the primary beneficiaries of the Miller County system: Keil & Goodson of Texarkana; Nix Patterson & Roach of Daingerfield, Texas, which has an office in Texarkana, Texas; and Crowley Norman of Houston. During the last seven years, the three firms generated more than $420 million in attorneys' fees from companies that settled 23 lawsuits, nearly all of them filed in Miller County Circuit Court. The settlements paid to the actual class members have generally been sealed.

"We know that there have been other really weird procedural shenanigans that have been going on down there," Ted Frank, a founder of the Center for Class Action Fairness LLC of Washington, D.C., told Arkansas Business.

Defendants hope last week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Miller County case of Knowles v. Standard Fire will make it easier for them to transfer cases from Miller County Circuit Court into federal court, where “you would not see these abuses taking place,” Dan Greenberg of Little Rock, former senior counsel of the Center for Class Action Fairness, told Arkansas Business.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys from the firms Keil & Goodson, Nix Patterson and Crowley Norman didn’t return calls for comment. Judge Johnson also didn’t return calls for comment.

The Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, however, has defended the justice system in Miller County and questioned the motives of its critics.

Defense attorneys who “portray the Miller County Circuit Court as a ‘magnet jurisdiction,’ a ‘judicial hellhole,’ where greedy attorneys for undeserving plaintiffs pursue senseless lawsuits,” are wrong, ATLA attorney Brian Brooks of Greenbrier said in his brief to the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the Knowles case. “Scratching the thin surface of the support for those contentions reveals that they have no support beyond rhetoric, one-sided hearsay newspaper reports and anecdotes.”

Brooks wrote that defendants are upset because they have to comply with discovery, which is necessary for both sides to try their case.



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