NEW ORLEANS – Louisiana lawyer Danny Becnel challenges the authority of U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier over Gulf Coast Claims Facility chief Ken Feinberg.
On Feb. 4, Becnel requested rehearing of an order Barbier entered on Feb. 2, dictating what Feinberg and his oil spill claim handlers must say and stop saying.
Becnel disputed Barbier's finding that Feinberg acts as an agent of oil company BP.
"First, Mr. Feinberg is an appointee of the President," Becnel wrote.
"Second, the President, as he expressly stated himself, organized the claims process to assure that Mr. Feinberg be independent," he wrote.
"As such, it is respectfully submitted, Mr. Feinberg's actions are beyond the constitutional powers of the judiciary to control or regulate," he wrote.
Becnel leads the Becnel Law Firm of Reserve representing four businesses and three individuals in Barbier's court.
The firm also represents clients pursuing claims through Feinberg's facility, which BP set up with a $20 billion trust fund.
In December, Barbier's plaintiff steering committee moved for court supervision of Feinberg's communications.
Becnel's firm and five other plaintiff firms opposed the motion.
Becnel wrote that Feinberg "stands in the shoes of the President."
"Mr. Feinberg has uniformly and unequivocally performed all his work honestly and efficiently," Becnel wrote.
He wrote that many attorneys see the facility as an obstacle to more fees.
"The more they can control and limit the efficacy and power of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, the more their fees will increase," Becnel wrote.
He wrote that more than 13,000 facility claimants are represented by counsel.
Anthony Buzbee of Houston wrote that the proposal would disrupt negotiations and delay resolution for those who have received settlement offers.
"Represented claimants should be able to enter into any type of agreement or release with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, or any other party for that matter, without micromanagement from other attorneys," Buzbee wrote.
Camilo Salas of New Orleans wrote that his clients didn't wish any interference by the plaintiff steering committee and didn't request any assistance from the court."
He wrote that neither the plaintiff steering committee nor the court should inject itself into private negotiations.
Three Florida firms adopted the arguments of Becnel, Buzbee and Salas.
BP opposed the motion as a restriction of free speech.
Barbier granted the motion, ordering Feinberg and the facility to disclose clearly at all times that they act on behalf of BP.
He ruled that a claim handler must begin any communication by telling a claimant he has the right to consult with an attorney of his own choosing.
He prohibited direct contact between the facility and anyone who has hired a lawyer.
He ruled that the facility must not tell claimants they shouldn't hire a lawyer.
He ordered full disclosure of options under the Oil Pollution Act including the right to file a claim in his court.
And, he ordered the facility to advise claimants that BP directly or indirectly compensates attorneys and community representatives
providing assistance to claimants.
"[D]istrict courts are free to prohibit false or misleading speech by a defendant and may restrict a defendant from
using methods of speech that are inherently coercive or prone to
abuse," Barbier wrote.
"The clear record in this case demonstrates that any claim of the GCCF's neutrality and independence is misleading to putative class members and is a direct threat to this ongoing litigation, as claimants must sign a full release against all potential defendants before obtaining final payments."
Barbier wrote that BP picked Feinberg and Obama approved.
He wrote that BP picked Feinberg without input from the plaintiff steering committee and without an order from him.
After the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill, BP assumed responsibility under the Oil Pollution Act.
The act sets forth claim resolution procedures and prohibits the filing of civil suits by those who haven't followed the procedures.
After paying claims, BP can try to recover from other parties.