3M pollution case: Confidentiality breach is costly for plaintiff's lawyers

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 12, 2007 - 10:37 PM

The inadvertent release of 3M documents to regulators and a reporter brings an $86,894 penalty against lawyers.

Attorneys battling 3M over groundwater pollution in east metro communities have been ordered to pay the company an $86,894 penalty for disclosing confidential company documents to a reporter and to state regulators.

The documents, which the lawyers conceded were released because of a "major screw up," had been turned over by 3M under a confidentiality order as part of a Washington County District Court lawsuit. The suit was filed three years ago on behalf of residents affected by the contamination.

Based on the documents, the Star Tribune reported in April that 3M scientists in the 1980s worried that chemicals used in Scotchgard and Teflon might persist and accumulate in soil and water but suggested that rigorous testing might prove the compounds environmentally sound.

3M didn't want those and other parts of the documents disclosed. Residents' attorneys have said they inadvertently included confidential portions in a packet of information given to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which was reviewing 3M cleanup issues in late April. The Star Tribune also asked for, and received, the documents from the attorneys.

When the citizens' lawyers learned of the mistake in April, they asked the agency and the newspaper for the documents back. The state agency returned them, receiving redacted versions instead. The Star Tribune retained copies of the unredacted documents.

In a June 19 ruling unsealed this week, retired federal judge Jonathan Lebedoff, who is a special master in the case, wrote that he was "deeply disturbed by Plaintiffs' counsel's serious breach of the protective order" and asserted the lawyers' "rush to satisfy the media was apparently of greater importance than conscientious adherence to court orders."

The local attorney representing the citizens, Martha Wivell, and two other lawyers involved did not return phone calls for comment.

Lebedoff also ordered the plaintiff's lawyers to hire an independent investigator to determine whether other documents produced by 3M have been improperly classified as not confidential in an electronic archive.

The sanction amount is based on 3M's legal costs over the breach of confidentiality. The ruling was issued the same day that the judge in the case ruled against allowing the case to proceed as a class-action lawsuit. The sanction ruling was not made public for 20 days.

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