Loudoun judges recuse themselves from OpenBand case

January 23, 2013

A $50 million lawsuit filed by telecommunications provider OpenBand was due to head to court in Loudoun County next month, but after a Jan. 15 order signed by Loudoun Circuit Court Judge James H. Chamblin, the judges of the 20th Judicial Circuit have recused themselves from presiding over the case.

In the order, the judges identified an unavoidable conflict of interest: One of the defendants in the case is a lawyer who practices regularly before the Circuit Court. That fact, the order says, would “render it improper” for any of the judges on the panel to hear the case.

John Whitbeck — the lawyer to whom the judges referred — is president of the Lansdowne on the Potomac Homeowners Association, which is among the 15 defendants identified in the lawsuit.

Preliminary arguments had been presented before Loudoun County Circuit Judge Thomas D. Horne before the Jan. 15 order. Julia Judkins, an attorney representing the county Board of Supervisors, as well as, individually, supervisors Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) and Shawn Williams (R-Broad Run), had previously protested an extensive discovery request from OpenBand. Motions had been filed by both sides, court records show.

The case has now been referred to the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, who will be responsible for designating a new judge from a different judicial circuit, according to the order.

OpenBand’s lengthy complaint, filed in October in Loudoun County Circuit Court, marked a new escalation in a years-long legal battle involving the Dulles-based cable TV provider, its customers and Loudoun supervisors.

Two supervisors, Williams and Buona, are also among the defendants named in the complaint, in addition to the board itself and two eastern Loudoun homeowners associations.

The lawsuit was filed soon after supervisors rejected OpenBand’s application to renew its franchise agreement with the county in September. Supervisors cited numerous concerns with the application, including ongoing customer complaints and two pending federal lawsuits filed against the company by the Southern Walk and Lans­downe on the Potomac homeowners associations.

It was the second time that the franchise renewal was denied; the previous Board of Supervisors had rejected an earlier version of the agreement in November 2011.

After the initial rejection, OpenBand first expressed interest in seeking an amicable solution and avoiding further litigation. But after the board’s vote in September, the company headed to court, alleging that the county supervisors had acted well beyond their authority in attempting to broker a deal between OpenBand and its disgruntled customers in several eastern Loudoun communities.

OpenBand also claimed that efforts by Buona and Williams to help establish a deal resulted in “direct manipulation of the franchise process,” thereby violating a state constitutional ban on government interference with private contracts, the complaint says.

The result was a “standard-less process,” wherein OpenBand and its parent company, M.C. Dean, were “coerced to relinquish their private contract and real property rights and to make direct cash payments to the HOAs,” actions that “amounted to extortion,” the lawsuit says.

While OpenBand’s lawsuit awaits a new judge, two other cases — federal complaints filed by the Southern Walk and Lans­downe on the Potomac homeowners associations — also remain pending. In 2011, the two HOAs filed separate but similar lawsuits against OpenBand in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, alleging that the exclusive nature of the company’s contract to provide telecommunications services violated the Federal Communication Commission’s exclusivity order.

The two cases received conflicting verdicts in U.S. District Court and are scheduled to be presented together before the same panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit on Tuesday.

OpenBand did not respond to a request for comment. Loudoun officials have declined to comment on pending litigation.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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