Lawyer: IPI motion for attorney substitution is a bad-faith tactic

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A LAWYER of the seven workers who sued Imperial Pacific International and its construction contractor and subcontractor, MCC International Saipan Ltd. Co. and Gold Mantis Construction Decoration (CNMI), for forced labor and human trafficking allegations says the motion for attorney substitution is a bad-faith tactic on the part of IPI.

Attorney Aaron Halegua represents the plaintiffs: Tianming Wang, Dong Han, Yongjun Meng, Liangcai Sun, Youli Wang, Qingchun Xu, and Duxin Yan.

IPI recently informed the court that it has terminated two of its attorneys, Sean Frink and Catherine Cachero, and requested to have attorney Mike Dotts substitute as lead counsel of IPI in the litigation.

According to Halegua, “This is a bad-faith tactic designed to further delay the collection and production of discovery at a time when IPI is shedding personnel, moving offices, and shutting down operations.”

“Plaintiffs can perceive of no other logical reason to fire Mr. Frink and Ms. Cachero at this time; and, indeed, IPI offers no legitimate explanation for its decision — or any explanation at all,” Halegua added.

He said all evidence suggests that the withdrawal of the Marianas Legal Strategy Group will necessarily cause delay.

In a previous ruling, Chief Judge Ramona V. Manglona of the District Court for the NMI found IPI in contempt of court for violating two of her previous orders. She also ordered IPI to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees.

In her order, Judge Manglona gave IPI one month to produce the documents requested by the plaintiffs, and if IPI does not, it will be required to pay $2,000 per day until it produces everything.

The judge also granted the plaintiffs’ motion for sanction and gave IPI until April 30, 2020 to provide a status report on the requested documents.

She directed IPI to tender all remaining items in the prior stipulated discovery schedule order by May 16, 2020. Failure to comply with the deadlines will result in a monetary sanction of $2,000 a day until IPI complies, she added.

Halegua noted IPI’s fourth lead counsel substitution in the span of a year.

In his declaration in support of his opposition to counsel substitution, Halegua said, “After Ms. [Kelley] Butcher took over as lead counsel for IPI in this matter, plaintiffs spent over 30 hours making telephone calls, drafting deficiency letters, negotiating stipulations, and engaging in other efforts to address discovery issues.”

Halegua said, “Since Mr. Frink and Ms. Cachero took over as lead counsel for IPI in early March 2020, plaintiffs again spent no fewer than 30 hours working with MLSG on discovery issues (exclusive of time spent on the sanctions motion). As MLSG was new to the matter and Ms. Butcher was largely unavailable, considerable time was invested simply educating MLSG attorneys about the facts of the case, prior agreements between the parties, prior exchanges between counsel, and IPI’s own ESI storage. Plaintiffs then spent significant time discussing with MLSG the intricate details of discovery, including but not limited to: the relevance of previously identified custodians; what types of documents are most relevant; company and personal email accounts; company and personal mobile phones; ACONEX data; English and Chinese search terms; protocols for efficiently searching and producing emails and ESI; and specific deficiencies in IPI’s paper discovery production.”

Halegua said after the hearing on April 16 when the court ordered the parties to confer on certain aspects of discovery, “plaintiffs received no communication from IPI for the next three days.”

He said on April 19, finding IPI’s silence “quite suspicious,” he contacted Frink to propose that the parties schedule a time to discuss discovery.

Halegua said he received no response to this request.

On April 22, he said he received the first communication from IPI since the hearing.

“Mr. Frink sent an email requesting that plaintiffs consent to a substitution of counsel for IPI, and attached a draft stipulation and proposed order. No explanation or reason for the substitution was provided,” Halegua said.

Halegua said he responded to Frink on the same day, and provided copies to IPI’s in-house attorneys and Dotts.

Halegua said he expressed the plaintiffs’ view that the decision to change counsel was a tactic by IPI to further delay discovery.

He requested various assurances that discovery would not be delayed if IPI substituted attorneys, and noted that MLSG remained counsel of record for IPI until the court granted the withdrawal motion pursuant to the local rules.

Halegua’s declaration stated that on April 23 he sent an email to IPI, the MLSG attorneys, IPI’s in-house counsel, and Dotts, proposing a teleconference to discuss discovery, including five specifically identified issues.

“Only Mr. Dotts responded stating his availability for the telephone call,” said Halegua.

On April 24, he said he responded to Dotts by stating that the plaintiffs believed that the MLSG attorneys, who were counsel of record and most familiar with the case, should also participate in the call.

He said he made clear that participation in the phone call did not mean that the plaintiffs consented to the proposed substitution of counsel.

“In response, Mr. Dotts sent an email cancelling the call on discovery matters,” Halegua said. “IPI has not reached out to plaintiffs to discuss discovery in this case.”


November 2020 pssnewsletter

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