FULTONDALE — This story is updated to reflect comments from the defense attorney for the Fultondale Gas Board.
A Jefferson Circuit Court judge has denied two motions filed by the Fultondale Gas Board in a lawsuit against them which seeks class action status.
Judge Michael Graffeo ruled late Thursday against the board in one motion which sought more detailed information on the plaintiff’s complaint against them. The other ruling denied the board’s procedural request during the legal procedure known as discovery — where each side seeks information from the other which would help their case.
“The defendants believed we had not provided sufficient detail in the complaint, and that the judge should force us to give more,” plaintiff’s attorney Jim Roberts said. “The judge said we had given plenty of detail.”
In the latter motion, Graffeo said that the plaintiffs could seek certain information in the discovery procedure which determines whether the case should have class-action status, even though that information might also affect the merits of the complaint itself.
“During the class-certification stage, you are allowed to conduct discovery related to whether a class actually exists,” Roberts said. “After that, you conduct whatever discovery needed on the merits — whether or not the defendant actually did what they are accused of. The judge allowed certain merit discovery during the certification phase, but the defense objected after we had our toe in the water, so to speak.”
Part of the reason for Graffeo’s denial was that the Gas Board is a quasi-public entity, and therefore much of the information sought is already available to the general public because of that status.
City attorney Charlie Waldrep was not surprised by the order.
“These are routine motions and routine orders. The court hasn’t reached conclusion that there’s a class action, nor that there is merit to the case,” Waldrep said. “We asked that discovery be stayed, and he said he would allow it to proceed. In the scheme of litigation, these are routine motions and this was a routine order. It’s the nature of class-action litigation.
“All [cases like this] question the specificity of the complaint or the discovery process. A very high percentage of those motions are denied, and you move forward. These aren’t particularly an advantage or a disadvantage to either party. None of the main issues rule on the class action itself or the merits.”
The lawsuit names Michael Watson and Sulphur Springs Services Inc. as the plaintiffs, who would serve as representatives of the class if class-action status were granted. Suplhur Springs Services includes John Douglas among its shareholders; Douglas is running to unseat Fultondale Mayor Jim Lowery, who by virtue of his office is also the superintendent of the Gas Board.
The board is accused of charging customers more than allowed by Alabama utility regulations, which permits charging 2.5 percent more than the rate charged to similar customers by Alagasco.
Graffeo’s ruling also directed the lawyers to agree to a schedule for the next phase of the proceedings, and to submit that schedule by Sept. 14. If the sides cannot agree, the judge will impose a schedule of his own, Roberts said.