Haslett lawsuit referee on hold

WINNSBORO – Ordinarily the appointment of a special referee is a relatively routine matter in judicial proceedings. But in Winnsboro, it’s become a complicated process in a lawsuit William Haslett filed against 20 downtown property owners last summer.

Haslett’s lawsuit asserts that property lines along Congress Street in downtown Winnsboro, where Haslett also owns property, have shifted through the years. His suit names property owners who own property either adjacent or near the property he owns. The lawsuit attributes the property changes to recording errors.

Objections have arisen over the appointment of the special referee, partly because of his connection to Haslett’s attorney and because of requests from some property owners for a jury trial.

There’s also a disagreement among some property owners about the next step moving forward. One  defense attorney told The Voice that efforts are underway to identify a new special referee.

Michael Griffin, a Charlotte, North Carolina attorney representing Winnsboro property owners L. Hubert and Bonnie Brice, said discussions relative to securing a new special referee began shortly after a court hearing in March.

“We’ve exchanged some names back and forth to see if there are any names we can agree on,” Griffin said.

Winnsboro Attorney Ross Burton, however, is among four other co-defendants who’ve demanded a jury trial. He still wants one, and doesn’t support appointing a special referee.

“I didn’t compromise on anything,” Burton said.

Burton said the issue is mainly one of cost.

“Most of us are just innocent bystanders in this. If you appoint a special referee, the parties have to pay the special referee,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to pay any fee at all. I want a jury trial.”

The special referee issue arose following an effort to appoint Ridgeway attorney Robert Hartman to preside over the case. It’s an issue, in part, because Hartman has litigated at least one case with Glenn Bowens, a Winnsboro attorney representing Haslett.

Hartman and Bowens were co-counsels in a lawsuit they jointly filed in 2016 against Fairfield County and developers of a mega-industrial site proposed off I-77 and S.C. 34, according to court records obtained by The Voice. The case was settled a year later.

Bowens couldn’t be reached for comment.

In Haslett’s original lawsuit that was filed in August 2017, Bowens requested appointing Hartman as the special referee to try “this entire action by taking testimony, ruling on any motions, issuing any interlocutory or other orders he deems prudent.”

The special referee would also receive evidence and issue a judgment. Any rulings would be appealable only to either the S.C. Court of Appeals or the state Supreme Court, according to the suit.

In January 2018, Bowens filed a formal motion seeking Hartman’s appointment as a special referee.

Griffin, the Charlotte attorney, acknowledged some property owners raised conflict of issues at a hearing last month over the possible appointment of Hartman. But, he said, the primary reason for seeking a new special referee was because it was seen as a possible compromise since several property owners had asked for a jury trial.

According to court documents Griffin filed, state law requires a jury trial to be held when one is requested.

In those circumstances, “upon the filing of a jury demand, the matter shall be returned to the circuit court,” Griffin’s motion states.

The motion further says four co-defendants – Ross Burton, Jeanette Starnes, George Kemp and Lee Kemp – all demanded jury trials for at least one cause of action in their respective answers to the lawsuit.

Circuit Court Judge Roger Henderson, however, approved the request to refer the case to Hartman, though Griffin said discussions about appointing a different special referee began shortly after the hearing.

“He [the judge] granted the motion, but I don’t believe Mr. Hartman is going to be appointed,” Griffin said.

Judge Henderson directed Bowens to draft an order about the special referee issue, which had not been filed as of press time.

Burton said he’s not worried about any potential conflict of interest issues, noting he considers Hartman a friend. But Burton did signal he might file a motion for reconsideration depending on what’s said in the order Bowens is drafting.

“It’s not a good idea to have someone closely related in business as a special referee, but Hartman is a friend of mine and I think he’ll be fair,” Burton said.

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