Former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto Carmen Natale

The judge in a suit over alleged destruction of asbestos-related evidence by BASF Corp. and law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel has rejected claims that Roberto Rivera-Soto has a conflict of interest that should prevent him from serving as discovery special master.

BASF and Cahill opposed the appointment of Rivera-Soto, a former justice of the state Supreme Court, as special master because his firm, Ballard Spahr, was represented in an unrelated suit in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia by Williams & Connolly, which also represents Cahill in the present case.

In addition, the defendants asserted that Rivera-Soto should not serve as master because he was with Fox Rothschild, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs in the present case, before he joined the Supreme Court in 2004.

The action was brought on behalf of plaintiffs in thousands of asbestos injury suits who claimed that Engelhard, a predecessor of BASF, and Cahill conspired to destroy evidence in those cases, and that they were shortchanged on their recoveries as a result.

U.S. District Judge Jose Linares of the District of New Jersey said Sept. 22 that the passage of 13 years since Rivera-Soto was affiliated with Fox Rothschild was sufficient to assure impartiality and to negate any appearance of impartiality. Linares said Rivera-Soto’s prior involvement with Fox Rothschild would not impede his ability to be impartial in the present case, citing the former justice’s assertion that he received his equity payout from the firm all at once, rather than in installments.

Linares also noted that New Jersey’s Code of Judicial Conduct requires a judge to refrain from hearing matters involving his former firm for seven years, and no more.

Linares also rejected the defendants’ Williams & Connolly objections, since that firm’s representation of Ballard Spahr is over. Williams & Connolly represented Ballard Spahr in an action to recover unpaid client fees, Ballard Spahr v. Symphony Health Solutions, but the case settled.

Rivera-Soto has affirmed that he was not aware of the Pennsylvania case and had no interaction with Williams & Connolly while it was representing Ballard Spahr, according to Linares. Under the circumstances, there is no conflict between Ballard Spahr and the parties in the present case, and Williams & Connolly’s former representation of Ballard Spahr has no impact on his ability to serve as an impartial special master, Linares said. He added that the facts would not lead a reasonable person to perceive any appearance of impropriety.

Christopher Placitella of Cohen, Placitella & Roth in Red Bank, who represents the plaintiffs and the class, declined to comment on the dispute over Rivera-Soto, but says he’s “anxious to move the case forward.”

Rivera-Soto declined to comment.

Lawyers representing BASF and Cahill did not return calls about the case.

The controversy marks the second time in recent months that the appointment of a special master sparked a dispute in this case.

In June, after Linares selected Garrett Brown Jr., former chief judge for the District of New Jersey, to serve as special master, the plaintiffs complained that his hourly rate of $900 was too expensive. Brown declined to serve after the objections were raised, and Linares appointed Rivera-Soto, whose hourly rate is $695.