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Law firm: Babcock & Wilcox focus on Leechburg activist Ameno is a distraction

Mary Ann Thomas
| Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, 12:23 p.m.
Hyde Park environmental activist Patty Ameno
Hyde Park environmental activist Patty Ameno

An objection filed in federal court claims that Leechburg environmental activist Patty Ameno did not destroy evidence, resist complying with a subpoena or obtain plaintiffs unethically for a lawsuit involving the former Babcock & Wilcox nuclear fuel processing plant in Apollo.

The objection, filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, stresses that Ameno is not a litigant in the lawsuit.

“We think that Patty Ameno has fully complied with obligations under the subpoena,” said Jonathan Orent, attorney with Motley Rice, the South Carolina law firm representing Ameno.

The firm separately is representing almost 100 Armstrong County residents in a federal civil lawsuit who claim they or loved ones were sickened or killed by radiation emitted from the plant over time.

“We look forward to Judge (David) Cercone to rule on this issue so we can get back to focusing on the individuals who have been hurt in the case,” Orent said.

The objection filed on Wednesday is the latest salvo in the discovery phase of a civil suit filed nearly three years ago in Michelle McMunn versus Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group, Inc. and Atlantic Richfield. Both operated the same two nuclear fuel processing plants in Apollo and Parks Township at different times.

The two plants were founded by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) and operated from 1957 to 1986 (Apollo) and 1998 (Parks).

A batch of earlier lawsuits were settled in 2008 and 2009 for more than $80 million to about 365 claimants for death, illness and property damages resulting from the operations of those plants.

The companies have always maintained that their operations did not cause illness or property damage.

The recent spate of court actions have focused on Ameno, a longtime local environmental activist who is not a plaintiff or litigant in the case. She is a subcontractor for Motley Rice.

Ameno has been very public in railing against the nuclear fuel companies and their cleanups for 25 years. She enlisted the attorneys for both civil suits and has been subpoenaed and provided depositions for both cases.

But this time, the defendants, in an Oct. 9 motion, accused Ameno of not being forthcoming with a subpoena and questioned her dealings with plaintiffs.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Mitchell ordered Ameno on Oct. 15 to produce documents and answer questions for B&W attorneys, or explain why she can't.

Now, Motley Rice is objecting on behalf of Ameno. It has asked the court to overturn Mitchell's decision and stop B&W from engaging in what Orent calls “a fishing expedition” against Ameno and the plaintiffs' attorneys.

“Instead of focusing on the merits of the legal issues in a professional manner, B&W devoted most of their briefing to baseless and outrageous allegations against both Ms. Ameno and Plaintiffs' counsel,” the objection states.

Major issues in the latest legal wrangling over Ameno include:

• Both sides are at odds over Ameno's work relationship with Motley Rice and whether she should release certain documents such as invoices to the law firm and emails related to the lawsuit.

Ameno was hired in the winter of 2010-11 to assist potential plaintiffs with paperwork as a clerk or paralegal earning $25 an hour, according to Motley Rice.

In addition, B&W questioned Ameno's relations with plaintiffs. The company characterized some of her work as enlisting “dozens of Plaintiffs, even though they had no scientific or medical basis for suing defendants.”

University of Pittsburgh law Professor John Burkoff, an expert hired by Motley Rice, wrote in an affidavit filed Wednesday that “Accordingly, the January 4, 2010 Agreement between Ms. Ameno and Motley Rice, in my opinion, raises no ethical concerns.”

• Motley Rice's objection also seeks to quash another deposition from Ameno and the production of more documents.

•Company attorneys spent eight days at Ameno's Leechburg home last spring and reviewed and copied more than 100,000 documents, according to Ameno's objection.

Much of the information was already secured by the defendants for the first civil action, according to the objection.

Ameno also gave a deposition earlier this year in which she offered to answer some questions about her work for Motley Rice.

Her attorneys indicated they would have permitted Ameno to answer some questions if B&W attorneys would have agreed those answers did not mean Ameno was waiving attorney-client privilege. But the B&W attorneys declined.

• Ameno's attorneys disagree with the Oct. 15 order requiring her to release attorney-client communications, provide documents it claims are unrelated to the lawsuit and retain records she has no legal obligation to preserve.

For example, B&W's attorneys requested Ameno's emails and other documents from her role as an environmental activist at the nuclear waste dump on Route 66 in Parks Township.

B&W attorney Peter C. Meier of California firm Paul Hastings declined comment. B&W attorney Jarrod D. Shaw of Reed Smith in Pittsburgh, and a media relations official from B&W did not immediately return phone calls for comment on Thursday.

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