Hood wants settlement to stay sealed

By John O'Brien | May 5, 2010


HATTIESBURG, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is again opposing the unsealing of the settlement in State Farm Insurance's lawsuit against him.

U.S. District Judge David Bramlette allowed four media organizations to intervene in the case in March, and they moved to unseal the settlement in April. In a response, attorneys for Hood say the seal, which was also placed on in camera testimony, should stay in place.

(T)he court ordered as a material aspect of the settlement that the confidential settlement agreement in this matter be placed and remain under seal," the response said.

"Now, over two years later, despite the absence of any new considerations or any change in material circumstances, the intervenors ask this court to reverse its prior decisions and to unseal these materials."

Jackson New Media, WLBT, WDAM and WLOX filed their motion April 20. Jackson New Media owns the political Web site Y'All Politics.

"Defendant Jim Hood is attorney general of the state of Mississippi and New Media has a clear right under both federal and state law to know and report on the facts and details of the circumstances under which Mr. Hood and the State Farm plaintiffs settled this matter," the motion says.

In May 2009, Hood argued that the settlement should stay sealed, saying a judge can't grant intervenor status to a party after a case is over.

The lawsuit alleged Hood was unfairly threatening the company with criminal charges to force it to settle the civil suit filed by Hood weeks after 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

Shortly after Hood was forced to take the stand in federal court in Hattiesburg, the two sides reached a confidential settlement in Feb. 2007.

Hood had sued State Farm and four other insurance companies weeks after Katrina, claiming that they intentionally misrepresented to policyholders the amount of damage done by wind (covered by their policies) and water (covered by a federal program).

A proposed settlement with State Farm had the potential to affect more than 35,000 policyholders, but a federal judge did not approve of it for procedural reasons. A separate successful settlement of 640 claims was coupled with a $5 million payment to Hood with the agreement his criminal investigation would cease, the company said.

Hood eventually sued State Farm again for not making the rejected settlement work. State Farm claimed he threatened it with the prospect of another criminal investigation.

The two sides disagreed heavily over the circumstances of the settlement. Hood wrote in a column that "allegations lodged against me by this insurer were shown to be false," while his press secretary wrote the only reason the outcome was referred to as a "settlement" is because "the details of the Attorney General's criminal investigation needed to be protected. The case was dismissed because the allegations were false."

Sheila Birnbaum, a State Farm attorney, accidentally sent an e-mail to members of the press that said, "This is so over the top. Can we ask that (Hood) be held in contempt of court for misrepresenting a settlement agreement and order of the court?"

The motion also asks Bramlette to unseal the transcript and/or video deposition of disgraced plaintiffs attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs that was sealed during his criminal proceedings and to unseal in camera testimony taken while the case was originally under seal.

Scruggs organized a group of attorneys to handle Katrina claims but is in jail after pleading guilty to two judicial bribery schemes.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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