BERLIN — The ongoing legal battle between a Berlin farm family and an environmental watchdog group over alleged pollution violations continued this week with a federal judge ruling the defendant’s leak of confidential information regarding settlement negotiations did not warrant sanctions.
In March 2010, the Waterkeeper Alliance, along with the Assateague Coastkeeper and the Assateague Coastal Trust, filed suit in U.S. District Court against Perdue and Berlin’s Hudson Farm, a contract Perdue factory farm operation of about 80,000 birds. The suit was filed when sampling in ditches adjacent to the property allegedly revealed high levels of harmful bacteria including fecal coliform and E. Coli in concentrations that exceed state limits. The Waterkeeper Alliance filed suit in federal court accusing the Hudson Farm of violating the state’s Clean Water Act.
The case has been plodding along through the judicial process on a course for a trial likely sometime later this spring, but following a settlement conference in late August to set the framework for demands, one of the defendants, Alan Hudson, allegedly leaked confidential information during an interview for a magazine article. As a result, the remaining plaintiff in the case, the Waterkeeper Alliance, sent a letter to U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm seeking sanctions against the defendants.
In its letter, the Waterkeeper Alliance alleged the defendants violated the provisions by disclosing the plaintiff’s confidential settlement position to the author of an article published in My Maryland magazine, a quarterly magazine distributed by the Maryland Farm Bureau. The article was entitled “Helping the Hudsons: Young Farm Family Continues to Fight.”
“Because the plaintiff’s settlement position was known only to the parties and the court, the plaintiff concludes the source of the article’s information could only have been one or both of the defendants or their representatives,” the Waterkeeper Alliance letter requesting sanctions reads. “Accordingly, the plaintiff requests sanctions for this alleged breach of the confidentiality of the settlement negotiations to include a finding of contempt of the court’s order, fines and an injunction.”
In the letter exchange, the Hudsons’ lawyer acknowledged that Alan Hudson gave an interview to the magazine and that the information included in the article was given at that time. The defense counsel told the court he had informed his clients of the rules regarding confidentiality and that he was unaware of the interview until after it had occurred.
However, the Waterkeeper Alliance claims the confidential information given in the interview has, in part, led to a political attack on the plaintiff over the Hudsons’ access to legal representation in the case. That political attack boiled to a head several weeks ago when Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called into question the use of the taxpayer resources for the plaintiffs.
However, the judge ruled in his opinion this week the perceived setback suffered by the plaintiffs in the case over the confidentiality issue did not hold up.
“The plaintiff has not identified any prejudice it has suffered as a result of the lapse in confidentiality beyond the additional time it has been required to devote to responding to media attention relating to this case,” the judge’s opinion reads. “Because the plaintiff has suffered no specific prejudice as a result of the lapse in confidentiality, I will not award sanctions against the defendant, Hudson Farm.”
However, the judge took the opportunity to remind the defendants and their counsel of the importance of the confidentiality clause when it comes to settlement negotiations.
“Having determined that sanctions are not warranted at present, however, in no way should be interpreted by Hudson Farm as an indication the court views its breach of confidentiality as a trivial matter,” the opinion reads. “Confidentiality is the very backbone of good faith settlement negotiations.”