NEW ORLEANS – The court-appointed special master in the Bayou Corne sinkhole settlement has admitted to a previously undisclosed relationship with the lead plaintiffs’ counsel, having served as his attorney in a lawsuit nine years ago.
In a filing to U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey, A. Shelby Easterly III said that he served as the lawyer for Calvin Fayard, the lead attorney in the case. Easterly said he may also have served as a notary for Fayard, but even so does not see the relationship as a conflict.
“I am aware of no cause for disqualification as Special Master,” Easterly said in his declaration.
Pending in the Bayou Corne case is a separate motion by Easterly to allow class counsel to split $12 million in fees for overseeing the common legal work in the class action. The fee, about one-fourth of the total settlement in the case, has been criticized by community and legal activists as excessive.
“At best, this relationship represents the appearance of a conflict of interest,”
Melissa Landry, executive director of the legal watchdog group Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse
Watch, said. “At worst, it looks like corruption. Either way, this longstanding relationship
between the special master and the class counsel should have been disclosed to the court
Last month, Texas Brine agreed to the $48.1 million settlement award after an underground salt dome collapsed creating a still growing sinkhole that threatens to swallow up Bayou Corne, the lake community constructed over it. Under the settlement, Texas Brine, which had been running the brine mining operation in the area that led to the collapse, essentially agreed to buy out all homeowners in the affected area.
However, in recent weeks increasing controversy has been uncovered surrounding the settlement and those responsible for instituting it.
The timing of Easterly's disclosure of his relationship with Fayard, which was first reported by the Louisiana Record, comes less than a week after Zainey granted Bayou Corne residents a hearing to voice disappointment with the settlement as it stands. Six Bayou Corne residents told Zainey in a letter that they believed Easterly and Fayard “mistreated and manipulated” members of the settlement class.
A hearing on the plaintiff's grievances is scheduled for April 8. Zainey has ordered Fayard and the other senior plaintiffs lawyers to attend.
Bayou Corne resident Jamie Weber, a member of the settlement class, said that lead attorneys who handled the case were unresponsive to her needs.
“They weren’t on our side at all,” Weber said. “They were completely not rooting for us, helping us in any kind of way to get the kind of money we deserved.”
According to records in the Orleans Parish Civil District Court, Easterly represented Fayard in a 2005 lawsuit, but did not disclose the relationship to the court prior to being named special master. Federal rules of civil procedure generally dictate that special masters should only be appointed if they can meet the same standard of impartiality as a judge.