Some Supreme Court cases, like old soldiers, never die, but unlike old soldiers, neither do they fade away. Consider Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company.
In 2009, a divided Supreme Court held that Hugh Caperton’s due process rights were violated when a judge on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals refused to recuse himself from the appeal of a multi-million dollar jury verdict brought by the owner of Massey Coal. Massey’s owner and CEO, Don Blankenship had funneled a large amount of money directly and indirectly into the judge’s election campaign.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “We conclude that there is a serious risk of actual bias — based on objective and reasonable perceptions– when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge’s election campaign when the case was pending or imminent.”
The case had a long history, dating to a dispute in 1998 between Caperton, who owned Harman Mining Co., and Blankenship. Caperton sued a Massey subsidiary in Virginia for breach of a contract to purchase coal from a Harman mine. He also filed suit against Massey and Blankenship in West Virginia for fraud and tortuous interference with his business. Caperton won jury verdicts in both cases. The actions by Massey had resulted in Caperton’s bankruptcy and the loss of his business.
Bruce Stanley of Pittsburgh’s Reed Smith has represented Caperton since 2000. After Stanley failed to get the West Virginia Supreme Court judge and other judges with political social connections to Blankenship to recuse from Blankenship’s appeal, that court reversed the jury verdict.
Stanley took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and enlisted the aid of former Bush Solicitor General Theodore Olson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Olson successfully argued the case which was sent back to the West Virginia Supreme Court. The state court again reversed the verdict, ruling that Caperton should have brought his fraud and tort claims in Virginia.
“We filed in Virginia in 2010 and then, of course, Massey’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss, alleging res judicata grounds, arguing in a contract action between a no longer owned Massey subsidiary and one of Mr. Caperton’s companies, all claims should have been brought at the time of the prior breach of contract action,” he said. The trial court agreed and dismissed Caperton’s claims. Stanley appealed.
“Finally the real authorities on Virginia law gave us the answer we expected all along,” he said.
A unanimous Virginia Supreme Court ruled last week that res judicata did not apply and remanded the case to the trial court.
“We’re anxious to get things going again,” said Stanley. “I’m particularly pleased with the conclusive tone the court employed. The case has been discovered to death. It was the subject of a seven-week trial.”
Stanley describes himself as “an old farm boy” from West Virginia who lives in Pittsburgh. He went to undergraduate and law school at West Virginia University.
“When I first picked up this case, I was doing claimants’ work, primarily construction work — projects gone bad,” he recalled. “I haven’t been able to get out of West Virginia since. There was mine fire litigation, the Massey explosion, a number of disputes against Massey. It’s become a full time practice.”
Stanley and partner Dave Fawcett who also worked on the Caperton case are the heroes of a forthcoming non-fiction book by Laurence Leamer: The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption.
The book, published by Times Book and available May 7, traces the two lawyers’ 14-year struggle against Blankenship and Blankenship’s rein over the West Virginia coal industry until the Upper Big branch mine disaster in 2010, in which 29 miners were killed.
That he has been able to stick with Caperton all these years, said Stanley, is a tribute to Reed Smith. “The firm is a real believer too.”
As for Caperton, he added, “It has been really hard for him. It has been doubly difficult because he is on a blacklist. With his company bankrupt, he cannot have a controlling or ownership interest in any coal operation. Between all the personal debt and bankruptcy and lack of employment, he has been at the edge for a long time.”
Caperton now works as a salaried employee for an underground communications equipment manufacturer, according to Stanley.
“That’s keeping him afloat, but the wolves are at the door. We’re hoping after all these years we can do something for him.”
Contact Marcia Coyle at firstname.lastname@example.org.