The fate of sealed court records outlining a legal settlement between a Mt. Pleasant Township couple and a group of gas drilling companies is in the hands of Washington County President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca.
The judge said Friday she will review arguments and previous court records before determining whether to unseal records of court proceedings involving Stephanie and Chris Hallowich and Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream.
The Observer-Reporter and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette are seeking to have the records unsealed, contending they contain pertinent information and should be open to public review.
The gas companies want the records to remain sealed, claiming that an court order opening would jeopardize all legal settlements containing a confidentiality clause.
“If you allow the newspapers to open this up, you are infringing on every attorney’s right to negotiate confidential agreements,” said attorney Phillip J. Binotto Jr., who spoke in court on behalf of all the gas companies.
O’Dell Seneca, however, responded by pointing out sealing of a settlement does not necessarily mean it will never be subject to opening.
“I always give cautionary instruction to attorneys in cases that want a settlement sealed,” she said.
Former Judge Paul Pozonsky sealed this particular case immediately after it was settled Aug. 23, 2011, ending the civil 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 Hallowiches gained national attention and even were the subject of a CBS News report.
During the August 2011 session, a P-G reporter openly objected to the sealing of the settlement. The newspapers contend sealing the record is in violation of the common law rights of the media.
On Sept. 6, 2011, the P-G petitioned the court to intervene, and the O-R joined the petition.
Pozonsky contended the newspapers should have sought to intervene in the case before final action was taken to seal the settlement. He also explained that sealing of the settlement was done in an effort to protect the Hallowiches’ two minor children, who were part of the lawsuit.
The newspapers appealed Pozonsky’s decision with the Superior Court, which after review, found the judge had erred when he denied the newspapers a chance to at least present their arguments for unsealing of the legal settlement.
Pozonsky suddenly resigned last summer amid rumors that he was the subject of a state grand jury investigation.
Last fall, the Superior Court ordered the matter be returned to the county court for another judge to conduct a formal hearing and review arguments regarding the matter.
With the Superior Court’s decision, attorneys for the newspapers argued Friday the burden now shifts to the gas companies to present information that “overcomes presumption of openness.”
Post-Gazette attorney Frederick N. Frank also argued that while the records supposedly were sealed to protect the minors, the Hallowiches have issued legal statements that they have no interest in the current court proceedings.
“If confidentiality is such an essential term of the agreement, why aren’t the Hallowiches here defending it?” Frank asked.
A few months after the Hallowiches’ case was settled, the couple filed an emergency petition for limited unsealing of the court record after Range Resources reported in a deed transfer that it paid $550,000 for their property. The Hallowiches claimed that amount was false under the agreement.
Pozonsky denied the Hallowiches’ request on a legal technicality of failing “to attach a statement of verification from counsel or the parties as required by Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure.”
But, before a decision was announced, many details of the settlement was discussed orally and in written briefs, said Frank, who then questioned why now the companies are refusing to open the court records.
O’Dell Seneca said she would take all the information of advisement and will review all judicial records in the case once she receives them from the Superior Court.