X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Laraine Pacheco, the special master who oversees asbestos litigation in New York City, is known to go to great lengths to persuade opposing attorneys to settle their differences on contentious and often emotional claims. Since 1999, she has helped settle hundreds of asbestos claims with a mediation style that pushes lawyers to get to know each other as people, rather than as enemies who will not give an inch in the courtroom. And it has worked, as evidenced by the fact that other states look to New York as a model in dealing with asbestos lawsuits. In April, though, Pacheco is planning an unusual gathering in Arizona that has raised eyebrows among some litigants and legal observers. She has invited all the lawyers involved in the asbestos litigation — attorneys for defendants, plaintiffs and the City of New York — to join her in Tucson, Ariz., where she lives. There, they can enjoy warm weather, a few rounds of golf, tennis, hiking and a party at her home with food, drink, a pool, a spa and music. In one e-mail sent to the attorneys last year, under the subject line “You asked for it!! Settlement Conferences in Arizona — Really,” Pacheco said she and her husband would help the attorneys plan their visits. She offered tips on hotels, airlines, day trips and sights to see. “On Saturday, April 9, we will have a big party at our home (settlement conferences in the pool and spa),” she wrote. She closed the e-mail with, “Tax deductible? Maybe. Check with your accountant.” In a subsequent e-mail, Pacheco said events might include a visit to McGuire’s jewelers, a wholesale jewelry store owned by her husband’s daughter. She said the store “offers wholesale prices to the public and even bigger discounts to my friends.” Pacheco said in interviews last week that the e-mails were tongue-in-cheek exchanges among attorneys who have come to know each other well over years of strenuous litigation. She said no settlement conferences — in fact, no business of any kind — will take place at the party. She also said she expects attorneys who attend to pay for it out of their own pockets. She did not consider this trip to be a deductible business expense, she said. After Pacheco received inquiries about the event last week, she sent another e-mail to attorneys stressing that this was strictly a social event and that there was no obligation to attend. “I’m a unique individual,” she said in an interview. “My approach to working with these people is to be much less formal.” New York’s asbestos litigation has had a special master since 1996. Pacheco’s role is to coordinate all claims, oversee discovery and foster settlements. If litigants cannot reach an agreement, their cases are sent out to one of several state Supreme Court justices with expertise in the area. Thousands of unresolved claims remain, attorneys say. David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said that Justice Helen E. Freedman, who appointed Pacheco and oversees the litigation, knew about the Arizona trip but did not think any work would be conducted there. “The judge was unaware of this e-mail,” Bookstaver said. “She is now aware of it and will direct that no settlement conferences will be held in Arizona.” UNUSUAL MOVE Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law and an expert in legal ethics, said that since Pacheco was acting as a mediator and not recommending resolutions to a judge, having a party for attorneys did not pose any problems, even it was out of town and lavish. “It is unusual, but I don’t have any problem with creating that kind of informal space,” he said. “Inviting people out, even if it is to discuss the case, is OK.” The invitation to the family jewelry store, Gillers said, was a concern. “She’s putting her own interests via her child on the table and she should not have done that,” he said. “She is creating an opportunity. People will not feel entirely free.” The Corporation Counsel’s Office last week sent a letter to Pacheco objecting to the idea that settlement conferences might be held outside of New York City, and that business might be conducted at a social event. The city is currently a party in two asbestos cases and said it would not send its attorneys to Arizona at taxpayer expense. “The commingling of serious court business with a social visit to a Judicial Officer’s home creates, at the very least, an appearance of impropriety, both for the court and the attorney participants,” assistant corporation counsel Thomas Merrill wrote. The letter was copied to Freedman and Justice Jacqueline Silberman, the administrative judge for Civil Supreme Court. Among the dozens of attorneys involved in New York City asbestos litigation, those who agreed to talk about the trip said it was unusual but positive and not a cause for concern. They said they had the utmost respect for Pacheco, and said she was always accessible despite living across the country. “I’ve had my differences with Laraine in the past, as I’m sure a lot of people have, but she is a very unique kind of person,” said Charles M. Ferguson, an attorney at Weitz & Luxenberg, the chief plaintiffs firm in the asbestos litigation in New York. He said he did not plan to attend. Pacheco developed a reputation as a first-rate special master when she helped resolve about 2,000 breast-implant suits in New York state and federal courts. She was appointed to that position by Freedman and Eastern District Judge Jack B. Weinstein, for whom she once clerked. Pacheco finished first in her class at Brooklyn Law School and now concentrates exclusively on mediation. Before she became an attorney, she was a high school principal in New York City and spent 20 years in the school system. As a special master, she is paid $368,000 a year — 60 percent by defendants and 40 percent by plaintiffs, with shares pro rated based on the number of claims for each. She said she pays all her expenses out of her salary. STILL THE PRINCIPAL Ferguson said that he can understand why people who are not familiar with the litigation “might raise an eyebrow” over the invitation, but he does not know how anyone involved in the case could interpret the invitation as anything other than a “casual” one. “She is matronly,” he said of Pacheco. “She still thinks that she’s the principal.” He and other attorneys said the Pacheco’s references to settlement conferences and tax deductions were clearly tongue-in-cheek. “I don’t think there is any pressure to go, I don’t think there is any penalty for not going,” said another attorney, who asked not to be identified. “It is a little unusual, but then again I haven’t seen any litigation like this one.” The attorney added: “I certainly wouldn’t consider charging a client for this trip. I don’t think that is an appropriate business expense.” Pacheco has had a party for the attorneys before, when many of them visited a conference in Arizona. At the time she lived in Scottsdale, Ariz., and invited everyone to her home there for food, drinks and a live band. “I make a good party,” she said in an interview. She and the litigants surprised Freedman last month with a birthday party in her courtroom; the pictures are online at www.nycal.net, a site maintained for the litigants. The attorneys also post pictures of their children, many of which have been born and raised during litigation that precedes Pacheco’s years on the case. Robert J. Cecala of Aaronson, Rappaport, Feinstein & Deutsch, which represents Ford Motor Co. and General Motors for its New York asbestos claims, said he is not going, but saw no problem with Pacheco’s e-mails. “I wasn’t planning on going, I don’t think my client will pay for it,” said Cecala. “From what I can tell, it is a very close-knit group. It’s not like any litigation I’ve ever seen. But you know, this is the first mass tort we’ve been in.” William E. Bell of Johnson Hirsch Connors & Bull, who represents Dunkirk Radiator Corp. and its successors, said Pacheco’s invitation did not raise any red flags with him. “I give Laraine fairly high marks for trying to take some of the edge off of stuff and not making it a pitched battle all the time,” he said. “You need something other than serious drudgery.” Bell said he had no plans, however, of flying to Arizona.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.