A class-action settlement hashed out between victims of sexual abuse and the Catholic Diocese of Charleston over the course of three years has prompted more acrimony and lawsuits, even after the diocese has distributed $10.3 million to class victims and their attorneys. The ongoing fallout is delaying payment to a group of victims who struck a separate deal.
Charleston attorney Gregg Meyers, who negotiated the separate settlement with the diocese for seven clients who opted out of the class, is accusing the church of delaying payment of $1.375 million and colluding with class counsel and Diane Goodstein, the circuit court judge in Dorchester County who presided over the class-action case.
"Apparently all counsel were colluding to move settled cases to Dorchester County to get the cases to Judge Goodstein, or to get them away from any judge who might preside in Charleston County," Meyers stated in the suit.
Goodstein was out of the country on vacation and not reachable, according to her assistant.
Larry Richter and David Haller, attorneys for the class action, issued a joint affidavit Tuesday rejecting the charges.
"The idea that either of us colluded with the Diocese of Charleston, Peter Shahid, or Judge Diane Goodstein is beyond preposterous; it is delusional," the affidavit stated, citing acrimonious negotiations among the parties.
Several of Meyers' clients are waiting for settlement funds to relieve them of serious financial difficulties, Meyers said. The diocese maintains that it cannot pay them until all claims are resolved, especially because Meyers is now asking for more than the agreed-upon sum and has added a plaintiff.
"We are happy to abide by the original agreement," said diocese spokesman Steve Gajdosik. "The money is there, but we cannot pay it with this pending action."
Meyers said he informed the diocese that any delay would cause additional harm, not that he demanded more money or new terms. He contends that collusion among the parties likely ensured "approval from the court at expense of the clients, (a large) attorney fee, and a small amount of recovery for class members."
Working with Greenville attorney David Flowers, he filed his suit on June 18 to prevent a change of venue for his case, from Charleston County to Dorchester County, where Goodstein would preside.
In the Charleston County Court of Common Pleas on Tuesday, Flowers argued that the separate Aug. 30 settlement agreement between the diocese and Meyers' clients could not be considered part of the class action because the plaintiffs had opted out of the larger case, and because the diocese, though it planned to use money left over from the class action to pay Meyers' clients, was obligated to pay them no matter what.
A. Peter Shahid Jr., a lawyer representing the diocese, said the case belonged in Dorchester County because it was part of very complex legal proceedings that would best be adjudicated there.
Judge John C. Few denied the diocese's request for a change of venue but added that he was in no position to decide whether Meyers' claims were part of the class action. Only Goodstein could determine that, he said, ordering a stay of 60 days to give diocese attorneys time to file any requests in Dorchester County.
If Goodstein should deem the two cases related, it could open a can of worms, Flowers said. Class counsel and the diocese never informed members of the class that a separate deal had been negotiated with Meyers' clients, Flowers said. This could suggest that their obligation to represent the interests of the class was not fulfilled, Flowers said. Few noted that there did appear to be some overlap.
Separately on Monday, Flowers filed a friend of the court brief in Dorchester County in which he alleged collusion between class counsel, Goodstein and the diocese, questionable actions on the part of the diocese, a conflict of interest concerning Richter's affiliation with the Catholic Church even as he represents clients in a case against the church, excessive legal fees and mishandling of the case on the part of Goodstein.
The brief recommended that Goodstein recuse herself; that other eligible victims have a chance to join the class; that Goodstein, Richter, Haller and Shahid report themselves to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel for unethical practices; that any unpaid money from the settlement pool be set aside; and that class counsel forfeit the $2.5 million fee until an independent analysis is performed and "a more reasonable fee awarded."
Richter said he chose Dorchester County because of its proximity, reputation for efficiency and relatively uncluttered docket of cases. He knew the settlement case would likely proceed quickly there and that its rural location might appeal to the diocese, he said.
Haller said the good-faith estimate of hours spent on the case was determined with the help of a computer program that scanned all the files related to the settlement and estimated time spent on each activity.
The dated entries, many of which list more than 24 hours of work, represent the entire time spent on a given project, not time spent that day, he said.
As allegations are flung back and forth, Larry Mullen waits. Mullen, now 60 and one of those in Meyers' settlement with the church, said he was a victim of abuse in the late 1950s and early 1960s at the hands of a teacher in the diocese.
He wants a quick resolution to the pending case, he said, but what he wants most is for the diocese to admit its mistakes.
"They don't ever accept responsibility," he said.