Mississippi judge in Eaton case won't step aside in handling controversial emails
By Alison Grant, The Plain Dealer
on December 20, 2012 at 6:00 PM, updated December 20, 2012 at 8:02 PM
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A Mississippi judge has refused an Eaton Corp. attorney's request that he step aside from dealing with controversial emails that surfaced in Eaton's long legal battle with competitor Frisby Aerospace.
Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Weill Sr. rejected a motion by the attorney to let another judge handle any future hearings on the emails that Eaton turned over in April. Weill has said the emails should have been produced more than two years earlier.
Weill, in an order posted Wednesday,(see document below) gave several reasons for his decision not to recuse himself, including that Eaton had fair warning that he planned to subject the emails to an analysis under the "crime-fraud exception."
The legal doctrine says that the normal protection of communications between attorneys and their clients can be disregarded if a communication is used to advance a crime or fraud.
The crime-fraud exception has resulted in the rare disclosure of numerous written and digital exchanges between Eaton's in-house and outside lawyers during the company's eight-years-and-running fight with Frisby in Jackson, Miss.
An Eaton spokesman could not be reach Thursday to comment on Weill's order.
The company and Frisby, competitors for lucrative military and corporate aerospace contracts, have been wrangling since Eaton sued Frisby in 2004. Eaton claimed that engineers from an Eaton Aerospace plant in Jackson stole valuable aerospace-parts trade secrets and took them to new jobs at a Frisby plant in North Carolina.
The trial judge who preceded Weill on the bench dismissed the trade secrets lawsuit in December 2010 after concluding that Eaton and its lawyers engaged in a fraud upon the court. The judge said Eaton and its attorneys let well-connected former county prosecutor Ed Peters try to influence the initial judge on the case, Bobby DeLaughter.
Eaton has appealed the lawsuit dismissal to the Mississippi Supreme Court. Eaton in public records said the lawsuit had about $200 million at stake.
Weill -- echoing words that his predecessor used in dismissing the civil suit -- said in September that Eaton was engaged in a continued "fraud upon the court" through "both its initial misdeeds and the ongoing purposeful cover-up of those misdeeds."
That prompted a motion by Eaton lawyer Michael Wallace asking Weill to let someone else oversee any further court actions regarding the emails it produced in April. They included communications from Peters about conversations with Judge DeLaughter.
Frisby wants to dig deeper into why Eaton produced the emails belatedly and has several motions pending over them. Eaton has said it turned them over when they were discovered during an internal review undertaken to make sure the company had thoroughly complied with the court's order to produce any documents concerning Peters and DeLaughter.
Eaton has asked Weill to halt further litigation in the dispute until the Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled on a request by the company to remove Weill from the entire case. That ruling has yet to be made.