Judge says she can’t look in to PCB settlement money
by Eddie Burkhalter
Nov 15, 2013 | 4899 views |  0 comments | 74 74 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A judge today rebuffed another attempt by some Anniston residents to force public disclosure of payments to plaintiffs in the 2003 settlement of a lawsuit over PCBs pollution.

Calhoun County Circuit Judge Debra Jones ruled Friday that her court has limited jurisdiction over the case, Abernathy vs. Monsanto, which was settled in 2003.

Jones ruled that her court cannot hold hearings delving into the details about how the $300 million settlement in the case is being disbursed.

Jones held up a stack of motions in front of a full courtroom Friday and said “none of these motions are going to be heard today.”

Among those motions, one filed June 11 by attorney William Eugene Rutledge asked the court to hold a hearing in which detailed evidence of the settlement payments to plaintiffs would be presented by attorney Donald Stewart, who argued the case against Monsanto in 2003.

Citing a 2012 Alabama Supreme Court order, Jones said the only decision she could make Friday was whether the trust set up to pay plaintiffs in the case against Monsanto was done in accordance with the court-ordered settlement agreement.

“And on its face, that has been done,” Jones said, explaining that she believes the trust was set up as required.

Jones said the Supreme Court order “specifically told me that I could not delve into the specifics on the trust” and that plaintiffs did not file their appeal within 45 days of the original judgment.

The Supreme Court ruling stated Jones’ court “clearly exceeded its discretion” when in August 2011 Jones ordered a hearing into the final settlement ruling.

The Supreme Court ruling stated Jones overstepped the court’s jurisdiction when she ordered a closer look into the administration of the trust, ordered confidential financial information be made public and froze distribution of the trust’s funds.

More than 3,000 plaintiffs affected by polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, made by Monsanto in Anniston were awarded $300 million in the case.

The Abernathy Trust Foundation was set up to disburse $21 million of the total $300 million settlement. The money was directed to pay for plaintiff’s health care and education scholarships, grants and loans to those plaintiffs who qualified.

Some plaintiffs in the case have alleged misallocation of the money, and are being represented by Rutledge.

Teresa Minor, Stewarts’ attorney during Friday’s motion hearing, told the court there is no evidence that Stewart mishandled the trust.

“My client has acted in accordance with every court order that’s been established,” Minor said. “... This has been going on for 10 years.”

Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Rutledge said the hearing did not go as he’d hoped. He had planned to present evidence that the circuit court never had jurisdiction to enter an order approving the settlement.

He may file an appeal to the Supreme Court, Rutledge said, because he believes Jones’s reading of the Supreme Court ruling is wrong.

“I do not believe that the Supreme Court has in any way prevented her from examining the evidence as to what was done about the trust agreement,” Rutledge said.

Donald Stewart said by phone Friday that he believes Jones ruling was correct and fair.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen on the other side, but we now plan to take action against Mr. Rutledge to get some of the money back that was spent by the trust defending these false allegations,” Stewart said.

“It’s cost the trust money, and it’s money that should have gone to the clients,” he said.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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