Sunday, July 20, 2003

Lawsuit struggles to find a trial judge



By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The first judge withdrew from the case. The second judge died. The third cited a conflict of interest. The fourth handed it off to a fifth judge who, shortly before the trial, had open-heart surgery.

Filed nine years ago in U.S. District Court, the lawsuit alleging pension law violations at Electro-Jet Tool & Manufacturing Co. would appear destined never to be tried. Not only does the civil case seem to impart noxious effects on the bench, it has outlasted six Electro-Jet employees who have died.

It isn't an easy case to try. More than 40 former employees of the defunct GE Aircraft Engines subcontractor in Evendale charge that they were hosed out of their $5 million profit-sharing plan in a 1988 transaction that gave them an 83 percent stake in a failing company and $10.2 million in bank debt.

Electro-Jet went out of business in 1997. Employees might wind up with nothing.

Because they blame the former owner, former executives, the bank, the appraiser and a lawyer, the case involves tenacious trial lawyers from eight law firms, including giants such as Taft, Stettinius & Hollister and Keating, Muething & Klekamp.

One local law firm, Graydon, Head & Ritchey, was dragged into the affair by its client - Electro-Jet's former owner - on a malpractice charge.

Here's how the case has bounced around the federal courthouse:

• The original judge, Herman Weber, withdrew in May 1994, because of an undisclosed conflict of interest.

• Weber's replacement, Carl Rubin, died in August 1995.

• Rubin's replacement, Sandra Beckwith, withdrew in October 1995, citing her former employment with Graydon, Head & Ritchey.

• Beckwith's replacement, Walter Rice, sat on the case for six years and agreed to give it up. It was assigned to a new judge, Thomas Rose, in August 2002.

• On June 23, three weeks before the July 14 trial date, Rose underwent emergency heart surgery to remove blockage found during routine tests.

Rose is recovering and will be back to work in a month or two. He has ruled on a few pre-trial motions.

The trial was reset for March 1.

E-mail jmcnair@enquirer.com.



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