Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 24, 2010

Settlements from Meijer, insurers to remain secret

If dispute between Meijer, insurers goes to court, details could get out


TRAVERSE CITY — Confidential settlements between Acme Township officials and Meijer Inc. will remain sealed, but a judge said those details could emerge if a dispute between Meijer and its insurers goes to trial.

Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers on Monday approved a limited order that requires all lawsuit parties to remain mum on the amount Meijer Inc. paid former Acme Township Treasurer Bill Boltres in a confidential settlement.

The order also will keep secret the identity of another township official — believed to be former Acme Supervisor Bill Kurtz — and the amount Meijer paid him in a private settlement.

But Rodgers rejected Meijer's motion to seal other documents, including claims against three insurance companies, and other material the retailer contends is "confidential information."

Meijer attorney Kenneth Brooks said any documents the retailer gave to insurance provider American Home Assurance Co. under a confidentiality agreement should be protected under seal. Rodgers didn't agree.

"Do parties sign agreements of this type, then use this courtroom to conduct private trials?" Rodgers said. "Is that the American way?"

He asked Brooks if the courtroom would be empty when the case goes to trial.

"We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it," Brooks replied.

American Home attorney Michelle Bracke said Meijer sent her client boxes of documents, including public court filings and newspaper articles.

"You can't say everything they made a copy of and sent to us in a box is confidential," Bracke said.

The core of what Meijer wants to keep secret is the amount paid Boltres to settle a lawsuit, and the amount and identity of "at least one" person involved in a private settlement, Brooks told Rodgers.

Meijer individually sued several Acme Township officials during a contentious zoning dispute over a proposed superstore along M-72. In 2007, former township Treasurer Bill Boltres responded with a suit against Meijer for malicious prosecution.

That suit uncovered Meijer's efforts to create and fund a citizens front group that harassed township officials, as well as its illegal attempts to manipulate a 2005 township zoning referendum and a 2007 recall attempt.

Five other township officials subsequently sued Meijer and developer The Village at Grand Traverse LLC in 2008, also for malicious prosecution. Meijer and The Village settled for $1.5 million, and paid a sixth, unnamed official at least $700,000.

American Home sued Meijer in June and contends it's not responsible for covering $2.2 million in payouts Meijer made to six township officials. American Home argues it doesn't have to pay Meijer's settlement because Meijer publicized "known false information" about the officials, failed to share information about the case and didn't exhaust its underlying insurance coverage.

Meijer said the Boltres settlement in 2007 exhausted its $2 million policy limit with Discover Property & Casualty Insurance Co.

American Home said the underlying insurance should have covered $3 million.

The settlement amounts may need to be discussed as the case progresses and layers of insurance coverage are peeled away, Bracke said.

Rodgers agreed, but said the case can proceed for now without those details. His order will allow any party to revisit the issue.

Bracke said she was "pleased with the outcome." Brooks declined to comment.