HARRISVILLE - A Ritchie County attorney, seeking a circuit court judgeship and facing a pair of ethics complaints, has been chastised by a circuit court judge who questioned his conduct stemming from a pair of 2007 lawsuits and his failure to comply with orders of the court.
Last week Circuit Court Judge Thomas Evans signed a permanent injunction order holding Harrisville attorney Ira Haught in contempt for failure to comply with prior court orders and sanctions. The rebuke stems from a 2007 case in which Haught is accused of filing two lawsuits on behalf of a man who later testified he had no knowledge of any such suits and had never retained Haught as his attorney.
Haught is the Republican nominee for judge in the Third Judicial Circuit, which includes Ritchie, Doddridge and Pleasants counties. He is running against Democrat Tim Sweeney, of Pleasants County. Sweeney was appointed to the fill the judge's chair in December 20102 following Robert Holland's death
In his summary, Evans stated the defendants, Haught and the Whittle Corp., engaged in a pattern of conduct that demonstrated a disregard for the authority of the court.
Evans said the defendants' failure to obey the order without justification "evidences a long pattern of flagrant disregard for the civil justice system, and the rules thereunder, resulting in the wasting of the scarce resources of the court and needlessly multiplying the cost of litigation for innocent parties."
A message left for Haught at his law office in Harrisville was not returned.
Evans' orders stem from two lawsuits filed by Haught in an attempt to divest Mike Ross Inc. and Ross & Wharton Gas Co. Inc. of its oil and gas lease interests in various properties through a "top lease" executed in favor of the Whittle Corp.
A top lease is one covering property where a current lease already exists. The top lease becomes effective only after the first lease has been terminated.
According to its website, the Whittle Corp. is a fifth-generation family-oriented business producing over 300 oil and gas wells. According to filings with the West Virginia Secretary of State's office, Haught is listed as the company's director.
In October 2007, Haught filed two separate complaints against Mike Ross Inc. and Ross & Wharton Gas on behalf of Donald Sheets.
Sheets, according to the findings of fact, testified in a deposition he had no idea that lawsuits were filed in his name and never gave Haught permission to do so. Sheets, according to the order, also testified he had not retained Haught as his lawyer and knew nothing about the tracts.
Sheets testified there was no truth to the complaints, Haught never disclosed to Sheets that Whittle would financially benefit from a verdict against Ross and Ross & Wharton Gas and Haught never disclosed his financial interest in Whittle.
Haught's two suits against the Ross companies were dismissed in May 2008.
In a motion for summary judgment filed by Ross and Ross & Wharton, the order found Haught violated his duties to the court and the state standards of professional conduct.
"As a result of the serious questions surrounding Mr. Haught's conduct, he was referred to the West Virginia Lawyer Disciplinary Board.
In issuing the permanent injunction, filed with the Ritchie County Circuit Clerk Oct. 18, Evans ordered Haught and Whittle to pay $2,000 a day beginning on the date of the hearing on the motion for contempt, which was filed July 12.
Evans also issued a permanent injunction against Haught and the Whittle Corp., from further trespass on any of the plaintiffs' interests.
The court ordered Haught and Whittle to terminate any and all top leases on any of the plaintiffs' interests as well as provide a listing of all such top leases and an accounting and reimbursement of all revenues improperly possessed by the defendants.
"Based on the foregoing, the court finds the defendants failure to comply was "willful and contemptuous" and warranted sanctions.
The court awarded the plaintiffs' attorney fees and costs and issued a permanent injunction against Haught from conducting any further activities on any of the plaintiffs' leasehold interested.
"It cannot be contested that the oil and gas industry is growing in our state and conduct that encourages individuals and corporations to deprive the rightful owners of the benefit of their contract through frivolous litigation tactics must be deterred," Evans stated. "To allow otherwise would encourage an endless stream of frivolous lawsuits, such as those at issue here, simply to frustrate the rights of mineral owners that will only negatively impact the development of natural resources in the state."
Evans went even further stating the entire judicial system would be harmed by allowing such conduct to go undeterred.
The judge threatened Haught with incarceration if his orders are not obeyed.
In addition to the sanctions issued by Evans, Haught is the subject of two, 2010 ethics complaints filed with the Lawyer Disciplinary Board. He is accused of converting money for his own use and attempting to deceive investigators about his clients in another.
Haught was scheduled for hearing in Charleston in August. The hearing has been continued to Dec. 5.
Maura Lewis, legal assistant for the the disciplinary board, said there are other complaints against Haught. He has five open complaints, two of which are part of the statement of charges, she said.
Haught has had 45 closed complaints dating back to 1985. He was admitted to the state bar in 1983. Haught was admonished by the investigative panel in 2006 and 2007, Lewis said. But she did not know why.
"It is not unusual for attorneys to be subject to complaints. There are so many variables.
"Each complaint has to go forward on its own merit," Lewis said.