Utah’s new solicitor general has apologized and agreed to pay $3,750 in attorney fees after a federal judge warned she was facing possible sanctions for making “patently false” statements that bogged down a class action lawsuit.
Melissa Holyoak, who was named Utah’s solicitor general earlier this month, did not admit wrongdoing but did write in her response to the court that she was “chagrined by my failure to meet the high standards I hold myself to.” She made the error while she was working at the nonprofit Center for Class Action Fairness (CCAF), the job she held before the Utah Attorney General’s Office picked her to become one of the state’s highest-ranking attorneys.
“My mistake is embarrassing. It does not adhere to the high standards I hold myself to,” she wrote, adding that it was “an honest mistake with no improper purpose.” But Holyoak argued the “extensive national publicity" over her misstep was punishment enough and asked the judge not to penalize her further.
The federal magistrate judge in the case, William Matthewman, accepted her offer to pay the attorney fees and agreed not to impose sanctions against her.
A spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office wrote in a statement that they were pleased with “the resolution to the misunderstanding” in the Florida case.
“We are now moving forward with the fullest confidence in Melissa’s legal skills as she works on behalf of the State of Utah as Solicitor General," spokesman Richard Piatt said.
Matthewman in early September had written a scathing rebuke against Holyoak for filing an erroneous objection to a settlement agreement in the class action lawsuit over tire safety standards. In a court order warning of potential sanctions, Matthewman expressed concern that she “intentionally attempted to mislead the parties and the Court on a material matter in a case of national importance, which impacts the safety of every man, woman, and child who travels on American roads.”
However, Holyoak’s assurance that she’d committed an honest oversight without any nefarious motives seemed to alleviate the judge’s concerns. Her response showed that she took her mistake seriously and was embarrassed about her error, the judge wrote earlier this month.
Matthewman found that Holyoak didn’t intend to deceive the court or cause slowdowns, even though her objection did result in “a substantial delay of the case.”
“The Court is satisfied and impressed by her prompt and candid response,” he wrote. “Ms. Holyoak admits her error, has dealt with the matter in a straightforward manner with Plaintiffs' counsel, and has provided a detailed, intelligent, and apologetic response to the Court.”
Still, Matthewman wrote that Holyoak likely wouldn’t have misinterpreted the settlement agreement if she’d carefully read the document, and he conjectured that she’d "been overzealous” in filing her objection with the court.
The voluntary $3,750 payment by Holyoak is meant to reimburse the plaintiffs’ attorneys for the time they spent responding to her argument, according to court documents. As part of the deal between Holyoak and attorneys in the case, she also agreed to withdraw her objection in full.
Holyoak weighed in on the tire case as a representative of CCAF, a nonprofit that seeks to intervene in lawsuits when its representatives believe attorneys are using “unfair class action procedures to benefit themselves at the expense of the class.” In this situation, she noted, attorneys were reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars while the class members — tire customers impacted by the lawsuit — weren’t receiving any money.
She also objected, incorrectly, that the settlement agreement gave away the rights of affected tire consumers to demand monetary damages in the future. That piece of her argument was based on a misreading of the settlement, she acknowledged, and she immediately withdrew it as soon as attorneys in the lawsuit brought it to her attention.
Matthewman overruled Holyoak’s entire objection and approved the settlement agreement, in which National Tire and Battery and TBC Corp. agreed to change their business practices, pay $7,500 to the two named plaintiffs and pay $645,000 in attorney fees and costs.
The lawsuit had alleged that these companies improperly sold millions of tires without registering them with the tire manufacturers or providing consumers with forms to complete this registration on their own.
This registration process, mandated by federal law, is crucial so that in the event of a safety recall, the tire manufactures can alert affected drivers, according to the suit. Violating these rules can put customers at risk of missing recall notifications and continuing to drive on faulty tires, the plaintiffs contended.
Ultimately, both sides agreed to improvements aimed at addressing any potential gaps in the recall process — which was why Matthewman scolded Holyoak for impeding the resolution of a case with far-reaching safety implications.
Piatt has said Holyoak disclosed her error to the attorney general’s office. Her mistake in the tire case “in no way jeopardized the safety of anyone on the road” because the settlement didn’t change the existing tire registration system, he said.
In a prepared statement Monday, Holyoak said: “I am grateful that the court found my objection was brought in good faith and recognized the good work the Center for Class Action Fairness does in objecting to unfair class action settlements. I am happy to now turn all of my focus on representing the State of Utah."
Holyoak attended the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, graduating in 2003 in the top 10% of her class, according to a news release from the Utah Attorney General’s Office. She’s experienced as a litigator and prosecutor and has most recently worked as president and general counsel of the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute and its Center for Class Action Fairness in Washington, D.C.
The role of solicitor general includes arguing appellate cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Tyler Green held the post before Holyoak and exited the job to work in the private sector.