Sparks fly over opioid litigation contract

Published 1:51 pm Wednesday, June 19, 2019

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The Greeneville-based Jessee Law Office is now in possession of an officially signed contract with Claiborne county to pursue litigation against opioid manufacturers. However, it took some 12 months to accomplish.

The firm was apparently given the go-ahead by the Claiborne Commission last year, prior to the shuffle of personnel brought about by the general election. It seems that county mayor Joe Brooks just recently received the document.

Brooks said during the commission meeting on Monday evening that because of misrepresentation, he could not, in good conscience, sign the contract as written.

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“It’s no secret I was not a fan of this lawsuit. This got brought back up from when it was first voted down last summer, because of (attorney general Jared Effler’s) case. Once (circuit court judge John McAfee) ruled against his case, this was brought back up.

“You all voted to enter into a contract with these folks. After talking to the state attorney general’s office, I vetoed that. It came back to you all, and that veto was overturned,” said Brooks.

He said his major concern with the agreement was the statement assuring that contracting with the firm would not tie the county to a class-action lawsuit.

“You all were told that you are the only client they are representing in this case. They have signed up as lead counsel for the state of Tennessee. But, in the contract, it actually names McHugh Law Group as the counsel representing you, and the folks from Greeneville – that would be the Jessee Law Firm – is an employee of that Group,” said Brooks.

He named a few other law firms listed in the contract as employees of McHugh Fuller Law Group – firms that span a few states including Florida, Texas and West Virginia.

Brooks said he contacted the state to make sure he understood just what he was signing.

“This is a class-action lawsuit. Any case that is brought against multiple state lines is, in fact, a class-action lawsuit,” said Brooks.

He suggested pulling and transcribing the commission minutes from the meeting last year when representatives from the Jessee Law Office first presented the proposed contract.

County attorney James Estep III agreed with Brooks that it appears the county could be consolidated into multi-state litigation as a class-action suit.

“It was my opinion that that’s what would be happening,” said Estep.

He was asked if the current contract is the same document presented last June to the commission. He said he was unsure, due to his being absent from that particular meeting due to a death in the family.

Attorney Crystal Jessee, representing Jessee Law Office, said it was the same.

“This same contract has been with this county since June, 2018 when I first appeared. Nothing has changed. And, if he (Brooks) represents that someone in Nashville told him this is a class-action, I want their name and telephone number, because this is absolutely incorrect.

“Mr.(Jared) Effler’s case has more plaintiffs than we do. He groups you with other people,” said Jessee, referring to the attorney general’s lawsuits against opioid companies. “You are our sole and only plaintiff, for this.”

Jessee said the cases were combined with other counties only for discovery purposes, so that the county could save expenses.

“We are no employee of any firm,” said Jessee.

Estep said the commissioners have three options – they could either look at the situation as a “done deal,” enforce signage of the document or postpone the matter until the minutes from June of 2018 could be reviewed.

As county mayor, Brooks has sole discretion in signing or vetoing these types of contracts. One alternative could be litigation brought by the county commission against Brooks to force him to sign, Estep said.

Jessee was asked about the fees and just how expenses are taken into account among the various attorneys involved in the county opioid lawsuit.

“We split our fees among ourselves. It’s 30 percent. It has no affect on you. The costs of the other attorneys do not weigh in. It’s our specific costs for Claiborne county, for us to come here and represent you. The costs will not be split among other counties or other attorneys,” said Jessee.

She added that there would be no fees or costs if the county does not win the suit.

Jessee reminded the commission that it has the right to have the chairman or a liaison sign in lieu of the mayor.

Brooks was asked what it would take for him to go ahead and sign the contract.

“I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to make me sign it. When you overrode my veto, it’s clear – if you don’t want to do it, table it. Let’s pull the minutes and see what the man (Jessee representative) said.

“This (the contract) is not what we were told you (the county commission) were signing. I also know that you (Jessee Law Office) filed in federal court in Ohio,” said Brooks.

Jessee responded, saying Brooks was incorrect.

“It will be filed in Greene or Knox county. For discovery purposes only, it is being sent to judge Posner in Ohio. He is over all the discovery motions. For trial purposes, it will be tried in our federal court here, in our state,” said Jessee.

Sparks flew between Brooks and Jessee, resulting in a clash over the unsuccessful outcome of the tobacco litigation brought to court by the attorney general.

After more discussion, the commissioners voted 18 to 3 to have commission chairman Mike Campbell sign the contract. Commissioners Charlton Vass, Nathan Epperson and Mitchell Cosby voted against the measure. Commissioners Campbell, Whitt Shuford, Brent Clark, Juanita Honeycutt, Kim Large, Stacey Crawford, Nicholas Epperson, Zach Mullins, Rosemary Barnett, Anthony Rowe, Carolyn Brooks, Steve Mason, Steve Brogan, Sherry McCreary, Shawn Peters, David Mundy, Steve Murphy and James Hatmaker voted in favor of the motion.

Prior to the vote, the commission approved suspending the rules to accommodate the immediate signing of the contract. Commissioners Shuford, Vass, Epperson and Cosby voted against the measure.