MarkWest appeals judge’s ruling that unsealed Hallowich case

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One of the natural gas industry firms involved in the settlement of a lawsuit with members of a family who were prominent critics of drilling and extraction has appealed a Washington County court decision that unsealed records of a $750,000 settlement.


Filing specific issues of appeal this week was MarkWest Energy Partners LP and MarkWest Energy Group LLC.


The Observer-Reporter and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sought access to Stephanie and Chris Hallowich’s settlement agreement with MarkWest and other companies approved in August 2011 by former Washington County judge Paul Pozonsky.


In a decision earlier this spring, President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca reversed his rulings and ordered the record be unsealed.


Pittsburgh attorney Erin McDowell, filing the appeal on behalf of MarkWest, listed three issues for Superior Court to consider:


• Whether the trial court erred in concluding that the parties’ interests in “preserving confidentiality in the settlement, combined with the public’s interest in encouraging settlement of disputes, were outweighed by the newspapers’ demand to access the matter, which only came before the court due to the tangential involvement of minors.”


• Whether O’Dell Seneca failed to “place the burden on the newspapers to demonstrate good cause for unsealing the record.”


• And whether the president judge was incorrect in reaching the conclusion that a business has no right to privacy that would allow it to keep a settlement confidential when the gas companies and the Hallowiches voluntarily agreed to those terms.


The Hallowiches purchased 10 acres of 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 also was a lease to mineral rights under their home.


The settlement ended the lawsuit in which the Hallowiches claimed nearby drilling operations, a compressor station and a gas processing plant made their property they purchased in 2005 worthless and posed health risks to their family. Range Resources purchased the Hallowich’s house and acreage for $550,000, an amount that became public before O’Dell Seneca issued her court opinion and order.


From the previously sealed settlement, it became apparent the parents decided to apportion $10,000 to their minor children, Nathan and Alyson, which they would place in a trust or annuity account.


A court document signed by the family’s attorney, Peter Villari of Conshohocken 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.”


Colin Fitch, attorney for the Observer-Reporter, said of MarkWest’s appeal that he would hardly consider a matter “tangential” because there were minors involved, and commented, “I think the judge was correct in all respects and we’re still waiting to hear if she will require the actual settlement agreement to be placed in the record.


“We believe she can continue to rule in the case and she can issue a final decision on that matter because it is a separate issue.”


MarkWest’s appeal to Superior Court does not address the more than inch-thick document, known as “Exhibit B” that was missing from the 56-page Hallowich case record when it was unsealed. Sheets of paper marked exhibits A through D served as placeholders in the file. Documents accompanied A, C and D, but not B.


O’Dell Seneca held a hearing in April in which Villari testified he assumed the settlement agreement would be filed with the prothonotary as part of the record in August 2011, but for circumstances that have never been fully explained, it wasn’t.


MarkWest was the only firm to file a notice of appeal before the deadline last month. Parties to the Hallowich litigation but not appealing O’Dell Seneca’s decision are Range Resources Corp. and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream.


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