GULFPORT -- A so-called secret meeting between Chancery Judge Breland Hilburn and some of the attorneys and principals in the Singing River Health System state case was brought up in federal court Wednesday morning.
But it didn't keep U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola from giving the federal settlement a preliminary nod, allowing it to advance toward becoming a class action.
SRHS asked Guirola to stop all other litigation involving SRHS' pension, especially recent cases in Circuit Court, where attorneys for 200 retirees have filed 46 claims of fraud and breach of contract between SRHS and the retirees.
Hilburn has already stopped all litigation in Chancery Court.
Jim Reeves, retirees' lead attorney in a settlement of the county hospital's failed pension, offered his concerns supporting the request.
SRHS asked Guirola to take control of all aspects of the case, which involves 3,100 members of a class that includes current and retired SRHS employees.
SRHS pointed out that attorneys for the 200 threatened to attack the class and stop the settlement. Reeves and the SRHS attorney complained to Guirola about a recent petition to the state Supreme Court; Facebook threats to an SRHS trustee; and the actions in Circuit Court. They said Guirola has the power to stop all other litigation to remove the chance some retirees would be left out of the settlement.
Reeves characterized the situation as "dangerous."
He said attorneys for the 200, Earl Denham and Harvey Barton, have "taken routine matters of the court to the airways and Internet and represented them as something inappropriate."
He defended last week's meeting between Hilburn and others in the SRHS case as a routine conference with the judge.
"I think the class is being misled and caused to worry," he told Guirola.
"I was stunned," Reeves said, that the two attorneys went to the point of surveillance of a sitting judge, referring to video recording the meeting with Hilburn and then filing a request for emergency relief with the state high court.
But Guirola didn't stop the litigation as SRHS had requested. He took it under advisement.
The judge told the court his first concern is the class and the pension fund.
He said the court does have a lot of power and authority, but both should be wielded carefully.
If he stops litigation in Circuit Court, it raises the issue of what to do if there's a violation of his order.
And we're in the age where social media plays a role, he said.
"We always hope individuals will act responsibly, but there's not a lot I can do to enforce that," he said.
The attorneys have the right to speak and act, he said. But he would step forward if the class or pension fund were in danger.
In the meantime, the settlement is moving forward.
Guirola set a May 16 hearing date to determine if a class will be formed and if the settlement is fair.
He had started Wednesday's preliminary hearing by saying he is "very much aware this matter has caused a great deal of concern and confusion in the local community."
He said he was aiming for clarity.
He said he wants the average person to be able to see documents on how the settlement was derived so they can make up their own minds.
"Why should we ask these people to take it on faith?" he asked the room full of attorneys with the settlement.
Guirola suggested an informational website on the settlement and Reeves said that was doable.