By Wally Kennedy
PICHER, Okla. —
Instead of each of them fighting alone, about 220 former residents of Picher will be able to go forward as a class in a lawsuit in which they allege their properties were intentionally undervalued by appraisers working for the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust.
On Tuesday, Judge Dana Kuehn, with Tulsa County District Court, posted online with the Oklahoma State Courts Network that she had granted a motion filed by the property owners seeking class-action status. She said her decision would be mailed by court clerks to the named parties, including the plaintiffs, the appraisal companies and several insurance companies.
Because copies of the ruling were not posted online Tuesday, details about the judge’s decision were not immediately available.
Kuehn received written arguments from lawyers on both sides of the issue and held a hearing on March 1 in Tulsa on the motion for class-action certification.
The judge scheduled Monday, April 1, as the date of a scheduling conference. No trial date has been set.
The ruling created a chain reaction of telephone calls as word spread Tuesday among the property owners who are part of the class.
“I just got a call and heard that they had ruled in our favor,” said Johnny LaFalier, one of the plaintiffs. “It’s good news coming.”
LaFalier said it has taken a long time to get to this point, but that the attorneys representing the property owners made that clear from the start.
“When they took my deposition a while back, I was told by John Wiggins (one of the lawyers) to put it on the shelf because it was going to take a while,” LaFalier said. “He said he’d let me know when I should wipe the dust off of it.”
LaFalier said the property owners are hopeful that their attorneys will make such a compelling argument for their position that the defendants will move to settle out of court to avoid a costly and time-consuming trial.
“I hope they can reach a settlement for actual and punitive damages,” he said. “We’re all getting old now, and a trial would be hard on us. But, for the first time in a long time, we have a sense of hope. Whatever we get is a plus we didn’t have before.”
John Frazier, another Picher resident who was relocated in the $45 million buyout, said: “I just heard about it. I think it’s great. Anyone with any common sense will be able to see that a lot of houses were too high and that even more houses were too low.
“When people see the pictures of the houses and their appraisals, they can’t believe there was that much difference in the appraisals.”
Frazier said that if the case goes to trial, he thinks the property owners would have a good chance of winning.
“With all of the documentation we’ve got, well, the pictures speak for themselves,” he said.
The officers of the trust have countered the allegations with statements that everyone was treated equally, that fair prices were paid, and that friends of trust officials were not given preferential treatment. More than 700 pieces of property were involved in the buyout.
Trust officials also say that the majority of Picher’s relocated residents received fair deals or they would not have accepted the buyout offers. Some residents have said they accepted what they characterized as “take-it-or-leave-it” offers because they thought it might be their only chance to get something for their properties.
Patsy Huffman, another participant in the buyout, said: “I’m thankful for the class action. How would all of these people been able to go to court if they had to go one at a time?”
Jeff Marr, an Oklahoma City attorney who is representing the property owners, said the judge did “an excellent job of cutting through the issues to get to the heart of it.”
He said the property owners now have the “opportunity to go forward in a single, unified action. They are now stronger going forward to right this wrong.”
Missy Beets, a former Picher resident, was selected to be the representative for the class because her appraisal was deemed a typical example of the alleged mishandling of appraisals. If the lawyers fail to convince a jury that the alleged mishandling was deliberate, then all of the other cases will fail as well.
Joe Fears, an attorney with Barber & Bartz, of Tulsa, who is representing Cinnabar Service Co., one of the appraisal companies named in the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Marr said he hopes a trial will be held this year.
“We intend to push for it. It’s doable,” he said. “The people have waited long enough.”
THE LEAD-IMPACTED Communities Relocation Assistance Trust was formed in 2006 after a study by the Army Corps of Engineers found that the abandoned mines under Picher, Cardin and Hockerville had a high risk of caving in.