SELA Lawsuit 25JUL16 (copy)

File photo of Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project construction 

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board is seeking to block the appointment of a court-ordered mediator in a lawsuit over damage caused to numerous nearby homes by the massive Uptown drainage project, a move the plaintiffs' attorney called a “disingenuous” effort to drag out the case.

Retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Hill was set to begin overseeing a settlement in the case this week, but talks were delayed by a filing in late November in which the S&WB said it had never agreed to the mediation. 

In its filing, the agency said the order to enter mediation, handed down by U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, who is overseeing various suits over the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, was improper and would force the agency to call expert witnesses in front of its opponents, disclosing information that could be used against the agency if the case goes to trial.

“The S&WB has always objected to this compulsory private mediation,” the filing said.

The effort to block Hill’s mediation effort comes more than five months after Engelhardt's order. And Michael Whitaker, who represents homeowners in the suit, said the S&WB has participated in numerous discussions about the mediation process in the meantime. 

“They were completely informed and included in the process," he said. "It’s disingenuous now to say they never agreed to the mediation." 

The suit, filed against the S&WB and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year, alleges that $80 million in damage has been done to homes, foundations and sewer lines during the construction of the massive drainage project, which is aimed at reducing flood risk and involves work along numerous major arteries in New Orleans.

The agreements between the Corps and the S&WB for the work required the local utility to bear liability for any damage caused during construction.

In a statement Tuesday, Nolan Lambert, special counsel to the SW&B, reiterated that the order to go into mediation violated local court rules.

He also urged residents to contact the S&WB directly with complaints about damaged property. He said the agency is offering voluntary compensation, as long as certain conditions are met. 

Whitaker said his clients had filed claims through that process and all were denied.

A hearing on whether to proceed with mediation is scheduled before Engelhardt in late January, but Whitaker said that would only cause more delays for homeowners. He said he intends to call on the court to sanction the S&WB by forcing it to pay attorney fees and other expenses. 

“If they’re going to lead us down the primrose path, only to say we’re not playing ball at the end of the day, I think they should pay for it,” Whitaker said. “That’s the only fair and just result.”

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​