Citing publicity, judge postpones trial in suit over legal fees

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 20, 2008 - 12:45 AM

A trial on the division of fees from a state settlement with AOL Time Warner, brokered by a Minneapolis firm, was pushed back after an article appeared Monday.

A Hennepin County judge said on Tuesday that "unflattering" pretrial publicity led her to postpone a trial in a dispute over the distribution of millions of dollars in legal fees from the settlement of a nationwide class-action suit against AOL Time Warner.

District Judge Denise Reilly said she was surprised to read an article about the case published Monday on the front page of the Star Tribune.

The article said two former lawyers with the firm of Heins Mills and Olson filed suit over the way the firm distributed $103 million in legal fees from the AOL Time Warner case.

Minnesota said several years ago that it lost $250 million in pension fund investments because of false and misleading statements by the media conglomerate. The state eventually got $3.3 million in the $2.65 billion nationwide settlement negotiated by Heins Mills, of Minneapolis.

Court filings in one lawsuit against the firm say lawyers Samuel Heins and Stacey Mills got $48 million and $32 million, respectively. They say Bryan Crawford got $10 million, and Vincent Esades, Brian Williams and Alan Gilbert each got about $4 million.

One lawsuit against the firm was resolved last year in a confidential settlement. The lawsuit scheduled to begin today involves Williams, a former Heins Mills partner who claims he deserved a larger cut of the fees.

William Pentelovitch, an attorney representing Heins Mills, had asked for a three-month delay. He argued that Monday's newspaper article went well beyond the facts of the pending lawsuit. It cited political contributions to DFL candidates over the years, and it described the background of the AOL Time Warner case, neither of which has any bearing on Williams' claims, Pentelovitch said.

"It makes it appear as if something untoward went on in this case," he said.

Pentelovitch said the publicity would make it more difficult to seat an impartial jury and might result in the elimination of more intelligent jurors who presumably would have read the article.

Mark Wisser, an attorney representing Williams, argued against a delay. He said the article appears to have been based on public records and involved a matter of public interest. If the case is postponed, he said, the newspaper might reasonably be expected to write another article before the trial. No one can control what a newspaper publishes, or when, said Wisser, a former Star Tribune sports editor.

The issue isn't whether a prospective juror read the article, Wisser said. It's whether the juror can be fair and impartial, and that can be determined through routine pretrial questioning.

Reilly studied the arguments for about 15 minutes, then sided with Pentelovitch. "I think the Constitution guarantees parties in any lawsuit to have a fair and impartial jury," she said.

Reilly said the article contained allegations and unflattering portrayals of some parties to the lawsuit, and she didn't want it to become an issue on appeal. "My first thought when I read the article was that people who read the paper would have been disqualified" as jurors, she said. She set the trial for June 2.

Reilly also delayed hearing a motion by the Star Tribune to intervene in the case to unseal voluminous pretrial filings. John Borger, an attorney for the Star Tribune, asked for an order that all sealed documents be maintained by the court until the right of public and press access is resolved. He also said the newspaper opposes a motion filed by Pentelovitch on Feb. 14 to hold secret proceedings in the case. Reilly asked Borger and Pentelovitch to submit additional briefs on the motion and said she'll schedule a hearing on them later.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

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