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Class action lawsuit settled: Michigan attorney confidents those entitled to a check received one
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By Carol McIntire
The recent settlement of a class action lawsuit against APEX Environmental left many Amsterdam residents feeling left out and upset when they didn’t receive a check.
Settlement checks for $5,158.03 each were mailed to residents within a four-mile radius of the landfill who joined the civil lawsuit. The checks were mailed in January to 353 addresses or about one-third of the total class.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2016 by James T. Sutton of Bergholz. Sutton alleged APEX Environmental, a Delaware corporation which operated the landfill on CR 78 just outside of Amsterdam, released noxious odors that invaded his property, causing damage through negligence, gross negligence and nuisance. Claims from nine other residents were included in the suit.
The suit cited numerous citations by the Jefferson County Health Department and repeated resident complaints to APEX officials as well as state officials.
Many Amsterdam residents took to the Amsterdam Facebook page “The Buzz” expressing complaints about the settlement, saying they did not receive notification of the class action suit with some believing they should have been included and were not.
The Messenger spoke with Attorney Laura Sheets, a partner in the law firm Liddle Sheets Coulson P.C. of Detroit, MI, who served as the lead in the case.
“I feel confident everyone who was entitled to a check received one,” Sheets said.
The attorney, who has over two decades of experience in class action lawsuits, said the firm began investigating in 2019. They worked with a local attorney to try to “gauge the temperature of residents” by sending out what is called a data sheet to see if people are, in fact, experiencing the odors, as was the problem in this case.”
The firm mailed the sheets based on information they received from freedom of information requests as to where people were filing complaints with the Jefferson County Health Department and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They received responses from a good number of residents and, at the point, decided to proceed with a class action lawsuit.
“In the complaint we filed with the court, we alleged there was a four-mile area (radius) around the landfill that was impacted, literally like a circle,” she explained as to the process used to certify the area involved.
Sheets was ill and at home answering phone messages the day The Messenger spoke with her, but verified information as best she could from memory.
When asked how the firm determined exactly what residents would be included in the complaint, she said they used databases to determine the homes in the area.
“Quite frankly it’s not that hard,” she said. “I believe there were either 1,300 or 1,800 in the four-mile radius, which is not a lot, but that’s because it is a rural area.”
The firm paid for a database of addresses to send out the initial investigative mailing (data sheets) and then “doubled down and fined tuned the list by paying a substantial amount for a comprehensive database of addresses when they knew they had a resolution.”
According to Sheets, the notices were sent out by first class mail, which has been determined the best and most accurate way to contact residents in these cases. On top of that, Sheets said a notice was published in the Steubenville Herald Star and it was posted on the firm’s website.
“We do this in hope that people will start talking,” she said.
“Most residents who contacted us have been wonderful. They want to confirm, should they or shouldn’t they have gotten a check. For some people, unfortunately, I can tell them by looking at our records that I mailed things to you, four, five and sometimes six times and never heard from you.”
“We want people to participate,” she continued. “We mailed the class several times to get people to join on and help us out. When Judge Bruzzese (Michael J. Bruzzese, Jr., Jefferson County Common Pleas Court) certified the class, we were required to send out notice that we had in fact been certified and gave them the opportunity to opt out.”
Sheets said the firm received four opt outs. The notice of settlement was of different substance but was sent to all the addresses except the four who opted out.
By law, every time the firm mailed information to the residents prior to it being certified as a class action lawsuit, it was required to put an advertisement on the front and the letter that, according to Sheets, looked like a solicitation from a law firm.
“People don’t want to see solicitation letters from law firms and they typically throw it out, which hindered our ability to investigate,” she explained, adding, “once the case is certified the advertising comes off the mailing.” The envelopes then included the language “APEX” landfill settlement.
Sheets called the number of claims received “robust” and noted not one claim they received was rejected.
“Would like to have seen mor,” she stated. “We received quite a few defective claims in the beginning where people didn’t prove they were who they said they were. We worked with them closely to make sure they provided the information needed so not one claim was rejected. We obtained this information by phone calls, email and text messages.
She further explained that from the data sheets returned, the attorneys had the information needed to contact residents. Residents who sent the data sheet back, but who had not otherwise responded, were also contacted.
“The numbers of claims pretty much coincided with the number of data sheets we reviewed,” Sheets noted.
The part of the process that is being overlooked, according to Sheets, is that the landfill has to do a million dollars of improvements that go above and beyond that which is required by the EPA and Jefferson County.
“Even if a resident didn’t fill out a claim form, they will receive the benefit of the improvement measures,” she said.
According to Sheets the settlement broke down as follows:
*$4 million total award.
*APEX must use $1 million of the settlement for improvements leaving $3 million as the settlement.
*Of that $3 million, there were: legal costs of $49,213.83 and the payment of $1,120,000 to Liddle Sheets Coulson P.C.
*Sutton, the original filer, received $10,000.
*The remaining $1,820,786.17 was divided evenly between the 353 claimants ($5,158.03 each).
“This was one of smaller classes we’ve worked with in terms of the number of households, but the biggest in terms of the radius,” Sheets noted. “Four miles is usually unheard of. The fact that there is less than 2,000 households within that area is very small.”
APEX is the 13th largest landfill in the nation. According to the original lawsuit, the facility accepts thousands of tons of waste per day, including, but not limited to, municipal solid waste, construction and demolition waste and oil and gas waste.
On March 17, 2017, APEX received a permit for expansion that included an increase in the daily allowance to 10,000 tons.
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