US Federal Magistrate Judge Joseph Dickson, Martin Luther King Courthouse, Newark, NJ. (Carmen Natale)
A Newark federal judge has consolidated two class actions against the state by individuals and businesses seeking compensation for traffic delays related to the Bridgegate scandal.
But the judge denied the motion by one group of plaintiffs to file a consolidated, amended complaint until pending cross-motions for appointment of interim lead counsel are decided.
Consolidation is warranted because the two cases are based on the same underlying events, feature several of the same defendants and involve “significant overlap” in the causes of action at issue, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Dickson said Aug. 18. And given that both cases are “still in their relative infancy” and have nearly identical procedural postures, consolidation would not cause any undue inconvenience, delay or expense, Dickson said in approving the consolidation.
The suits seek compensation for parties who suffered lost wages, longer commutes, wasted gas or diminished revenue as a result of gridlock on Sept. 9-13, 2013, caused by the closure of two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee, N.J., to the George Washington Bridge.
Galicki v. State of New Jersey, which was filed first, will serve as the lead case. It was filed in January by Rosemarie Arnold of Fort Lee. The other case is GW Car Service v. State of New Jersey, filed in February by Rochelle Park, N.J., attorney Barry Epstein. The consolidated cases have 22 plaintiffs who seek compensation for the heavy traffic delays, which they claim were the result of a politically motivated scheme. The plaintiffs raise federal civil rights violations and claims for false imprisonment, public nuisance, and economic, physical and emotional injuries.
The individual defendants in the consolidated case include Gov. Chris Christie, aides Bridget Kelley and Michael Drewniak, Port Authority appointees Bill Baroni and David Wildstein and Christie political advisor Bill Stepien.
Both plaintiff groups approved of the consolidation, as did the state, Christie and Drewniak. No parties opposed the consolidation.
The plaintiff groups are headed for a showdown over the appointment of interim class counsel, with Epstein arguing that Arnold should not get that appointment because of a conflict of interest. Epstein said the named plaintiffs in Arnold’s case include her brother, Robert Arnold, and two members of her office staff, Kim Joscelyn and Elizabeth Psaltos, whose pay was docked because the gridlock made them late for work.
The conflicts “create the clear appearance of impropriety and have the real potential of preventing eventual class certification,” Epstein said in court papers. The employees of Arnold’s firm may be motivated by an interest in maximizing the award of attorney fees to their employer, or less inclined to question the fairness of a settlement reached on behalf of the class, he said.
In addition, Arnold’s firm is itself a member of the class because it is located in Fort Lee, Epstein said.
“Given its dual status as counsel and a class member, the mere possibility that the Law Offices of Rosemarie Arnold may proceed in a manner to further its own interests rather than those of the class presents an inherent conflict which mandates its disqualification,” Epstein said in court papers.
Asked about Epstein’s claims, Arnold said in an email message, “It is my opinion that Barry Epstein opposed my application because he would prefer to have himself be appointed as interim counsel rather than me. Once the class is certified, any person who used the George Washington Bridge on the days in question will be plaintiffs in the case. I believe this class includes some of Mr. Epstein’s relatives and employees as well.”
The motion for appointment of interim class counsel has been pending for several months but there’s been no indication when it will be resolved, Epstein said. That would be followed by discovery and a motion for class certification, he said.
Epstein did not dispute Arnold’s characterization. He said “our position is that we are more qualified, that we have more experience,” which puts him in a better position to be interim lead class counsel.
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