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Supreme Judicial Court sends Hingham, Aquarion dispute to lower court

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  September 3, 2013 02:41 PM

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Hingham’s attempt to bypass traditional court procedures has been denied, with the Supreme Judicial Court deciding to move the dispute between the town and Aquarion Water Co. to a lower court.

The town had hoped to more quickly resolve the dispute over the price of their water infrastructure by going directly to the highest Massachusetts Court, typically reserved for appeals of lower court decisions.

Yet the appellate body struck down the request on Aug. 30, sending the case instead to the Business Litigation Session of the Superior Court of Suffolk County.

“[The] Business Litigation Session is an excellent choice for the case, and it’s one the town is pleased with,” said Kerry Ryan, Hingham’s attorney. “The SJC would have potentially been a bit quicker, we were trying to get to a result with the quickest method possible but transferring it [here] … is not a bad thing.”

Hingham is seeking court input in a dispute over the price of the water infrastructure. Though Hingham officials feel the price is closer to $60 million, Aquarion officials have asserted the price could be nothing but $185 million.

The court will review an 1879 formula that specifies how to determine the purchase price, parsing through some of the currently disputed language.

A review by the Supreme Judicial Court would not have been as detailed as one at the Superior Court level, and would have become a shortcut for a process that most likely will end up in front of the Supreme Court on appeal regardless.

However Ryan said arguing the case in the Business Litigation Session is a promising alternative, as it is a specialized session of the Superior Court designed for complex business and commercial disputes.

“The cases are run on an individualized basis, that’s the advantage of being there…they get a lot more personal attention, and that’s a good thing in a case like this,” Ryan said.

Ryan pointed out that though the case was not maintained at the highest court level, the case was not dismissed entirely, as Aquarion had hoped.

Yet Aquarion officials were pleased with the decision.

“We are not surprised by the ruling because Town officials had pursued an odd approach by filing directly with the Supreme Court, and there is no way the purchase price of a water system of this size and complexity can be reasonably determined without factual discovery, a process that will now be afforded by the Superior Court," said John Walsh, Aquarion Vice President of Operations, in an emailed statement.

Even as litigation between the two parties continues, Walsh said Aquarion was committed to serving Hingham, Hull, and North Cohasset.

"I will reiterate that Aquarion did not choose litigation; rather, we are simply defending ourselves,” Walsh said.

While the dispute will take longer than initially hoped and will have to go through the normal court process, Town Administrator Ted Alexiades still hopes the process will go quickly

“The court also indicated the referral and expedited schedule. We hope we’ll be at the discussion within the next month or so,” Alexiades said.

The Business Litigation Session is also more familiar with complex business matters, Alexiades said, which may move the case more quickly through the discussion since the court is generally focused on these types of issues.

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