NEW ORLEANS – A law firm seeking to sue oil companies for damaging the Cameron Parish marsh has been forbidden to do so by the Louisiana Attorney General’s office.
Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell said in a recent letter that Victor Marcello, an attorney at Carmouche, Talbot & Marcello of Gonzales, falsely told a judge that he was representing the state in a similar case against oil companies. Consequently, Caldwell has forbidden Marcello from representing the Cameron Parish Police Jury in a similar action.
In the letter to Marcello, Caldwell said that only his office has the authority to appoint lawyers to represent the state.
“I had no knowledge that your firm was purporting to represent the State of Louisiana,’’ Caldwell said. “And certainly, I had not communicated with anyone from your firm regarding these suits, nor did I authorize your firm to represent the State of Louisiana.”
As Attorney General only Caldwell has the authority to approve any suit filed by a local government entity that is employing private attorneys.
Carmouche, Talbot & Marcello has a long history of filing environmental damage suits against oil companies on behalf of various private landholders in the state. These actions, called “legacy lawsuits,” have netted tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the firm. The Carmouche firm also represents several school boards in the state that have filed their own legacy suits against oil companies. The Cameron Parish School Board, using Carmouche lawyers, has been particularly aggressive in such litigation; according to state records, the Board and its lawyers have filed 11 legacy suits over the years.
The suits have proven a boon for the Cameron School Board. In 2012, The Cameron Parish Pilot newspaper reported the Cameron Parish School Board received a $46 million in legacy lawsuit judgments, which it used to build schools, pay employee benefits and raises and roll back taxes. According to state records, however, not a dime of that settlement money went toward mitigating any marsh damage the oil companies may have caused.
The suit contemplated by Cameron appears to be a variation on the legacy suits filed in the past. In these suits, dozens of which have already been filed by Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes, oil firms are accused of damaging the coastal marshes as a result of exploration activities they conducted decades or even generations ago.
Caldwell did not intervene in the coastal suits filed in Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes and in the past he has supported the legacy suits filed by local governments, at least tacitly, by approving the hiring of outside law firms that file them.
In addition to filing scores of legacy suits, the Carmouche firm is pursuing the coastal suits in Jefferson and Plaquemines. The Carmouche firm has pitched other coastal parishes to file similar lawsuits but so far none have done so.
In the case of the Cameron Police Jury, Caldwell told the parish and its lawyers to start over, with new hiring resolutions and more precise descriptions of the client.
“I will not approve any future resolutions for the hiring of special counsel to pursue claims unless the resolution clearly and explicitly provides that the parish is pursuing only claims that the parish is authorized to bring on behalf of the parish and that special counsel represents only the parish,” Caldwell’s letter said.
Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, described Marcello’s tactics as “questionable” and said the incident may force the parishes to reconsider how they are being represented in court.
“What we have is an attorney who made misleading statements to a judge in formal legal proceedings,’’ she said. “This stunning lack of candor casts considerable doubt over the credibility of this firm.”
In 2012, one of the defendants in a legacy lawsuit case, brought on behalf of the Cameron Parish School Board by the Carmouche firm sought a 40% contingency fee if the suit resulted in a settlement on a court win. Some observers say that fee violates state law, which limits contingency awards to 25% in cases where the plaintiff is a local government.
Caldwell’s letter did not address this issue.