Confidential agreement should have been part of Washington County Marcellus Shale case record
A just-released Washington County Court transcript of an August 2011 settlement hearing in a high-profile Marcellus Shale damage case shows the case records should have included a missing confidential settlement agreement, and reveals details of an unusual lifetime “gag order” that covers two minor children involved in the case.
According to the 16-page transcript, then-Washington County Court Judge Paul Pozonsky approved sealing the court records with the settlement agreement “attached thereto” in the private hearing held to settle the claims of Chris and Stephanie Hallowich against Range Resources, Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream and Markwest Energy.
The Hallowiches, who had been long-time critics of shale gas drilling, claimed that Marcellus Shale gas development — including four wells, gas compressor stations and a 3-acre wastewater impoundment — adjacent to their 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant, Washington County, damaged the family’s health and the value of their property.
The Hallowiches signed an affidavit as a condition of the settlement that stated their family’s health was not damaged by the gas operations.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter successfully petitioned the court to unseal all of the Hallowich case records, but when more than 900 pages of records were released in March, the confidential settlement agreement was missing from the file.
“This shows clearly the settlement agreement was part of the record,” said Frederick Frank, an attorney representing the Post-Gazette.
The hearing transcript, which provides details of the $750,000 settlement paid to the family, shows the Hallowiches reluctantly agreed to the terms of the settlement to remove their children from what they considered an unhealthy environment. They also raised questions about how the lifetime “gag order,” as the judge called it, included in the settlement that required the entire family to never discuss Marcellus Shale or fracking would be enforced against their then 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.
According to the transcript, the Hallowiches’ attorney, Peter Villari, said that in 30 years of practicing law he never had seen a nondisclosure agreement that included minor children. And, although he advised the Hallowiches to accept the settlement, he questioned if the children’s First Amendment rights could be restricted by such an agreement.
Judge Pozonsky, who has since resigned, responded that he didn’t know, adding, “That’s a law school question, I guess.”
Although the settlement hearing, from which reporters from the Post-Gazette were barred, occurred almost two years ago, a transcript of the hearing was not produced until Mr. Frank requested it last month.
Washington County Court President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca ordered the transcript, which is scheduled to be filed this morning with the Washington County Prothonotary.
The release of the transcript does not settle the case. Range and Markwest have appealed Judge O’Dell Seneca’s order unsealing the case records to the state Superior Court.
“We believe the transcript fully supports our position that the actual settlement agreement between the plaintiffs and defendants was part of the court record, and moreover it was reviewed by the court, which held extensive discussions regarding its terms,” Mr. Frank said. “The agreement should be returned to the record as clearly indicated, and as a judicial record should be made available to the public.”
First Published July 31, 2013 7:00 am