Slabbed brought to my attention that U.S. District Judge Senter was retiring in Federal Judge L.T. Senter is Retiring. Ex Rel Rigsby to be Transfered to Another Judge. An unsung hero in the Katrina litigation, Sun-Herald investigative reporter Anita Lee, broke the story of Judge Senter’s retirement in U.S. District Judge Retiring and provided a brief biography of his legal career:
Senter, a University of Mississippi Law School graduate, served as a circuit judge before he was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
He worked from 1980 to 1982 as a federal judge in Mississippi’s Northern District, then as the district’s chief judge from 1982 to 1998. He took senior status in 1998, and began traveling to the Coast in 2000 to help out with the caseload.
He moved to the Coast in 2002. After Katrina hit, he agreed to take on the insurance cases with the assistance of U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert H. Walker. Other judges had to recuse themselves from the cases because their homes suffered hurricane damage.
In Katrina Cases Came ‘Fast and Furious,’ but Judge has no Regrets, Anita Lee wrote more in depth about Judge Senter:
The judge also became a hero to beleaguered policyholders when he ruled wind damage is covered even if storm surge contributes to a loss. Insurance companies, he said, had the burden to prove flood caused a loss in order to deny coverage.
The local and national media reported on those early cases, with reporters dashing from the courtroom to file their stories first.
“I just didn’t dream there would be that much (news coverage),” Senter said. “Frankly, I just worried also because of the danger that the jury panel would be influenced.”
The courtroom crowd swelled to its largest size in February 2007, when Senter held a hearing to consider a massive settlement agreement proposed by a group of policyholder attorneys, led by famed lawyer Dickie Scruggs, and State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. Sheila Birnbaum, considered in legal circles to be the world’s leading product-liability attorney, headed State Farm’s team.
Senter wanted to know how the Scruggs legal team intended to earn up to $20 million in legal fees outlined in the settlement agreement. The lawyers were unable to answer this and other questions to Senter’s satisfaction. He rejected the settlement. Senter ruled it failed to protect policyholders. Scruggs, used to getting his way, was livid.
Judge Senter asked me to speak against the class settlement that day. I had previously spoken in favor of the mandatory mediations and settlement conferences he ordered. I felt his heart and legal rulings were just in both instances. I argued against the Scruggs lead class that parties should always be encouraged to resolve differences as quickly as possible but should never be forced to accept an unfair settlement.
Again, as reported by Anita Lee, his impression of the timing of decisions and the impact it had on cases was the same as mine:
The tide was running in policyholders’ favor at the time. But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals changed all that. The appellate court in September 2007 overturned Senter’s decision in a Nationwide insurance case, finding wind damage was not covered when water contributed to a loss. Policyholders near the waterfront were left to wonder what hurricane protection their policies did offer.
Insurance policies are governed by state law, so the Mississippi Supreme Court is the final authority in this area. The 5th Circuit could have sent the wind vs. water question to the state Supreme Court instead of reaching its own decision.
Instead, a test case did not reach the state’s high court until April 2008. The Supreme Court settled the issue in October 2009, more than four years after the hurricane. Justices drew the same conclusions Senter had reached less than a year after Katrina: Wind and water cause separate losses. Once the policyholder establishes a direct physical loss under an all-perils policy, the burden shifts to an insurance company to prove water caused the loss in order to deny coverage.
The delay, Senter said Wednesday, was “tragic.” “When (the 5th Circuit) reversed my decision,” he said, “it had a really demoralizing effect on a lot of policyholders who had lawsuits filed, as I was told by plaintiff’s lawyers, so they settled for substantially less than they should have received.”
He might not have known what he was getting into with the insurance cases, Senter said, but he would do it again. “Once you see the devastation, as I saw it, and all the people struggling, it just seems like a small, small part for me to try these cases,” he said. “They deserved a forum to have their cases tried.”
I noted the same and applauded Judge Senter’s reasoning in Fifth Circuit Got it WRONG!!:
In the adjustment field, where the rubber meets the road, adjusters warn policyholders that interpretations could give a zero result where a coverage "problem" may exist in return for the policyholder being thankful for even an underpaid claim. This is exactly the situation now facing the public because of this overly broad interpretation of the clause given by the Fifth Circuit. Judge Senter had it right when he wrote:
Read literally, this provision would exclude all coverage when a windstorm did damage to both an insured dwelling (a covered loss) and adjacent "screens, including their supports, around a pool, patio, or other areas." (an excluded loss). I do not believe this is a reasonable interpretation of the policy. A windstorm is a weather condition that is specifically included in the coverage of this policy. When the policy is read as a whole, I find that this exclusionary provision is ambiguous — the policy as a whole providing explicitly for windstorm coverage in one section and purportedly excluding the same coverage on the grounds that a windstorm, a "weather condition," and an excluded peril, a flood, ; occurred at approximately the same time. The most reasonable interpretation for these conflicting policy provisions is that this policy provides coverage for windstorm damage, in accordance with its terms, and that coverage is not negated merely because an excluded peril (in this case storm surge flooding) occurs at or near the same time. If this second provision were read to exclude wind damage that occurs at or near the time that any excluded water damage occurs, the result would be contrary to well-established Mississippi law…… This reading of the policy would make the windstorm protection illusory for those who live in areas where the risk of flooding is greatest. Nationwide seems to recognize this to be the reasonable interpretation of its policy. Nationwide has not invoked this policy provision to deny coverage to the Leonards for what everyone recognizes to be wind damage. (emphasis added)
Senter made the point that the Fifth Circuit missed, the insurance industry has heretofore no problem with paying for what damage wind does, despite a literal reading possibly giving rise to an absurd result. The example provided by Judge Edith Jones is an absurd result.
Eventually, I wrote about why the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning was wrong and Judge Senter’s was correct in Slabbed Gets It and So Do I: What About All the Other More Brilliant People Regarding Concepts of Concurrent Causation? But, the decision was far too late to correct the wrongs resulted from the Fifth Circuit’s erroneous decision to overrule Judge Senter.
This very humble and capable judge lead the most difficult insurance quagmire into a fair resolution, as I indicated in a post that I want you to read twice–once in the entirety and second for the bold emphasis if you want to understand how I felt about the matter– I noted in a post from two years ago, A Judge That Gets It:
It is very, very hard to be a good judge. Of all the human endeavors, making decisions that directly impact people, their lives, and dreams on a wide variety of intensely disputed controversies is an awesome responsibility. To be a good judge, you have to be very smart, patient, understanding, intellectually and factually honest, have common sense, be experienced in life, energetic, restrained, detached from undue influence, noble, hard working, and intensely dedicated to seeing that people have a chance for justice. It is impossible to find all of these traits in one person, I know my best talents are found somewhere other than as a referee in a trial courtroom.
A federal judge is appointed for life. Like Admirals and Generals of our military and Cabinet-level Secretaries and their Deputies, they are on the Board of Directors of the United States of America. They voluntarily take on the job of making certain that this Land of the Free and Home of the Brave is more than just an ideal we have ingrained into our souls. They are the keepers of a governmental system of the best and longest running democracy to ever exist.
Two of my very good friends became federal judges. As I get older, more of my colleagues are getting tapped for these positions. They change once appointed. The federal judiciary demands that the avoidance of conflicts and appearances of conflicts of interest become paramount. I no longer see my federal judge friends regularly. As an advocate, I can understand and appreciate the need for my friends and judicial colleagues to distance themselves from the lawyers and other friends that may come before them seeking results favorable to our interests.
I guess it comes with the job, but there are personal sacrifices made by those accepting these responsibilities.
One of the aspects of practicing law all over the country is that I practice in front of a lot of different judges in various venues. Virtually all truly want justice in each case. Some are better at it than others. The worst and most dangerous to our society are those who are dishonest or who have closed their hearts to fairness or justice because they have a predetermined agenda. Once in a while, a particular judge makes rulings that show wisdom and leadership. Sometimes, you find these judges in places where people are surprised to find stellar and academic legal opinions, but we are often wrong to stereotype individuals based upon where they come from or live.
For instance, my mother cried the day she learned the Coast Guard was transferring our family to the Mississippi Coast. She grew up in Philadelphia and was afraid her children would never receive a proper education. However, the best academic and life lessons I learned were during the two years I spent with the Brothers of the Sacred Heart at St. Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. My mother cried when we had to leave for my father’s next tour of duty in California. The Brothers are very different from most modern people. They devote themselves to the improvement of people through the teachings of Jesus Christ. They have no other interests; they represent higher ideals. They inspire us to think about the welfare of others over ourselves. I owe them so much and am so unworthy a student of them.
Good judges are very much the same; they become judges to make justice and law based upon higher ideals. Who wants a dumb judge? Who wants an unsuccessful lawyer who just wants a raise as their judge? Nobody. How many successful attorneys, after working harder and better at it than others, want to take a cut in pay to be a judge? Not many. Those good attorneys who do, and truly desire to make this country a better place, without agenda, and with nothing more than a desire to do so, are what we need in our country.
It is truly rare when judges properly understand the practical and academic issues facing them. Either they lack the practical experience, or the very best attorneys are simply taking advantage of their academic abilities, resulting in poor decisions. This problem has not happened in the Southern District of Mississippi since Hurricane Katrina. Judge Senter has repeatedly called the balls and strikes of the ensuing insurance litigation with a reserved attitude and a voice of experience, trying to get the litigation resolved.
I will always remember Judge Senter and Magistrate Judge Walker for the important role they played in providing swift and effective justice. I noted in Tina Nicholson Gets a Well Deserved Note in Slabbed:
The Hurricane Katrina insurance coverage litigation along the Mississippi Coast was a once in a lifetime event for most attorneys. For me, it was obvious from the first day we landed at Stennis airport that this was where the Super Bowl of insurance coverage litigation was going to be waged for the next several years. With a lot of help from Florida panhandle trial attorneys Larry Keefe and Sparky Lovelace (Sparky quickly left our venture and started work with his long time friend, Dickie Scruggs), we decided to build two law offices–one in Bay St. Louis and the other in Gulfport. Teenage friends of mine who were local attorneys without law offices as a result of Katrina, Randy SantaCruz and William Weatherly, agreed to sign on with our efforts after Cindy Cady recruited them. With insurance claim denials and low payments running rampant, we were overworked with cases and clients. We already had transferred Jason Ciofalo from Tampa to work full time in Mississippi, and Deborah Trotter was working full time with Randy Santa Cruz out of the Bay St. Louis office.
But without Judge Senter taking leadership and moving the cases towards resolution, this would never have happened so that the rest of us could do our part. We need more judges with the character, attitude and nobleness of Judge Senter. To him I say, "Cheers" and God’s Blessings.