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Steptoe & Johnson PLLC: Pennsylvania Judge Orders Marcellus Development Settlement Unsealed


By Brian Pulito and Jamie Little 

On March 20, 2013, in a 32-page opinion, President Judge Debbie O'Dell-Seneca of the Court of Common Pleas for Washington County, Pennsylvania ordered that a sealed, court-approved settlement between Plaintiffs, Stephanie and Chris Hallowich, and Defendants, Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Wiliams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream Partners, to be unsealed at the request of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter.

In their May 2010 lawsuit, the Hallowiches claimed that their health had been damaged by Defendants' Marcellus shale drilling. The Hallowiches and the Defendants were able to reach a settlement agreement in July 2011. The records pertaining to this settlement were sealed at Defendants' request by the former Washington County Common Pleas Judge Paul Pozonsky on August 23, 2011.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter challenged Judge Pozonsky's decision to seal the settlement records. Judge O'Dell-Seneca heard the oral arguments of the newspapers and the Defendants on January 18, 2013. In her opinion, Judge O'Dell-Seneca found that the newspapers did not seek to reopen the record in pursuit of self-interest, rather they intervened to "vindicate the public's right of access to its courts and to information."

Judge O'Dell-Seneca also found that the Defendants failed to present evidence to show that any harm would befall them if the settlement agreement became public. Judge O'Dell-Seneca further found that businesses do not have the same right to privacy as individuals.

In a statement by Range Resources, the company states it "does not have concerns with the judge's decision, which we greatly respect, to make the court file public. This information combined with the vast public data accessible through the DEP's extensive investigations should provide the public with even greater clarity that shale gas is being developed safely and responsibly."

The Defendants will have 30 days to file an appeal of Judge O'Dell-Seneca's opinion. 

Brian Pulito focuses his practice in the areas of civil litigation, construction litigation, oil, gas and mineral law litigation, and intellectual property law litigation. Jamie Little focuses her practice in the area of energy litigation.

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