A Washington County judge on Wednesday reversed an earlier ruling and opened a legal agreement involving a Mt. Pleasant Township family that claimed nearby Marcellus Shale gas drilling caused them harm.
“This court found no case establishing a constitutional right of privacy for businesses,” Washington County President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca wrote in her opinion overturning former Judge Paul Pozonsky’s sealing of the record 18 months ago.
The total settlement with Stephanie and Chris Hallowich was $750,000, according to court documents obtained Wednesday by Observer Publishing Co.’s attorney, Colin Fitch, who was one of two lawyers seeking access to the sealed records on behalf of the Observer-Reporter and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Hallowiches drew wide attention and they and their children were the subject of news reports by CBS, National Geographic Daily News, Reuters U.S. edition and the British Broadcasting Corp. in addition to local and regional news reports.
In a court document related to the settlement agreement signed in August 2011 by Pozonsky, the amount deducted for attorneys’ fees to a Conshohocken, Montgomery County, firm was $150,000. Reimbursement for the law firm’s cost was $5,179, leaving $594,820 for Stephanie and Chris Hallowich. Gas companies that are defendants in the litigation are Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream.
From that, the parents decided to apportion $10,000 to each child, which they would place in a trust or annuity account.
In regards to their children, Nathan and Alyson, both minors, a court document signed by the family’s attorney states, “There is presently no medical evidence that support these claims are related to any exposure to the activities of defendants.”
But the litigants established an arbitration process to “assess and adjudicate any possible future claims of personal injury for Mr. and Mrs. Hallowich and their children, including medical examinations of the children.”
Inside the 56-page Washington County Court record Fitch opened Wednesday, however, was a page marked, “Exhibit B (Filed Under Seal),” but no accompanying document, which is believed to be the actual settlement agreement.
Fitch said he and Frederick Frank, attorney for the Post-Gazette, were on Wednesday preparing a letter to the natural gas companies “asking them to produce this document in short order. If they fail to do so, we will go to court to force the companies to turn over the agreement.”
Until Wednesday, the only clue of the Hallowich’s settlement was sale of their home and 10-acre property at 31 McCarrell Road, Hickory, in October 2011 to Range Resources Corp. for $550,000. The amount, and the fact that the Hallowiches retained oil and gas rights to the property, was part of the public record of the transfer tax on the property.
Pozonsky also heard a request in February 2012 from the Hallowiches for limited unsealing of the agreement. They claimed the seal was breached when the property transaction became public. The actual price, according to a petition the Hallowiches filed with the court, was $100.
“We view one of our roles at the newspaper as a proponent of Right to Know. The complete Hallowich settlement with Range Resources should be part of the public record,” said Lucy Northrop Corwin, Observer-Reporter director of news.
The Hallowiches purchased property in Mt. Pleasant Township in 2005, built a home and moved there in 2007.
They said in court documents they did not know that the prior owner of the property leased or sold adjacent property to natural gas companies so that gas could be extracted. The Hallowiches also said they did not know there was also a lease to mineral rights under their home.
Real estate professionals told the Hallowiches that what the couple referred to as their dream home was virtually “unsellable.” They orginally demanded a jury trial. They drafted, but did not file, a complaint that added their children as plaintiffs in the case.
The settlement ended the lawsuit in which the Hallowiches claimed that nearby drilling operations, a compressor station and a gas processing plant made their property that they purchased in 2005 worthless and posed health risks to their family.
The natural gas companies “have failed to oppose (the) press’ motion to unseal the record under” case law,” O’Dell Seneca wrote.
Corporations, companies and partnership have no spiritual nature, feelings, intellect, beliefs, thoughts, emotions or sensations because they do not exist in the manner that humankind exists … They cannot be ‘let alone’ by government because businesses are but grapes, ripe upon the vine of the law, that the people of this Commonwealth raise, tend and prune at their pleasure and need.
“Therefore, this court must grant those motions and reverse (Pozonsky’s) Aug. 23, 2011, order, unless a higher authority forestalls the common law’s application.”
The decision became the responsibility of O’Dell Seneca after the state Superior Court said Pozonsky erred in ordering that the Hallowich case “be sealed indefinitely in its entirety” without first holding a hearing. The appellate court sent the case back to Washington County court in December, nearly six months after Pozonsky resigned from the bench amid reports of a state grand jury investigation.
“It was a scholarly opinion that weighed the constitutional issues and came down on the side of the public’s right to know,” Fitch said of O’Dell Seneca’s 32-page opinion and order.
“After all, this is a taxpayer-funded court that exists to serve the public. Unless there is a serious privacy issue, the presumption of openness applies and the record should be open to both the public and the press,” he continued.
O’Dell Seneca discussed the press’ and the public’s right of access: “The press’ investigative role is itself a constitutional and common law bulwark, safeguarding the courts from lapsing into the clandestine abuse found in PA Childcare LLC, known as the Luzerne County Cash for Kids scandal,” Judge O’Dell Seneca wrote.
“It is not ‘mere curiosity’ as (the natural gas firms) contend.”
Matt Pitzarella, spokesman for Range Resources, did not respond Wednesday to an emailed request for comment.