The acrimony in the $297 million legal battle between local developer J. Brian O'Neill and Citizens Bank, and how it has played out in public, was on the mind of Common Pleas Court Judge Albert W. Sheppard Jr. at a pretrial hearing in his Philadelphia courtroom Wednesday.
The judge apologized to attorneys for comments he had made to The Inquirer about how much the megalawsuit was costing to litigate. "I have a very high opinion of these lawyers involved here," he said Wednesday.
And after the hearing, he called out to O'Neill in the back of the courtroom and expressed concerns about litigants' calling reporters.
O'Neill, the developer who is suing Citizens Bank on allegations that include fraud, replied with a rare public comment about the mess that has stalled his planned $700 million development in Malvern.
"Nineteen thousand people lost their jobs, your honor," said O'Neill, referring to unrealized jobs after Citizens Bank declined to finance construction at Uptown Worthington near Routes 202 and 29. "There's a lot of unhappy people out there."
The animosity has played out publicly since O'Neill filed what began as an $8 billion lawsuit in January. He has since amended it to a $297 million claim. Citizens had already sued him for $61 million.
Well aware of the pitched battle, Sheppard had entered his courtroom Wednesday morning carrying a green, World War II-era, U.S. Army helmet. He plunked it onto the bench and asked the attorneys standing before him:
"Now, how bad is it going to be?"
"I'll tell you when to put it on," one lawyer shouted back as the group of about seven men laughed and clapped.
What followed were nearly three hours of testimony by Jeffrey Nugent, senior vice president of Citizens Bank of Pennsylvania, which is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland Group P.L.C. Nugent had been relationship manager of O'Neill's loan deals with Citizens.
O'Neill's lead attorney, Steven M. Coren, alleged that a change Nugent made to bank records earlier this year may have been representative of a broader "strategy of deleting" records about O'Neill by the bank. Citizens has denied that.
Nugent testified that he was simply correcting an error when he modified a database entry dealing with O'Neill in May - three days after he was deposed for O'Neill's lawsuit.
Citizens Bank has asked the judge to disregard O'Neill's claims about alleged obstruction and to dismiss the entire case, but the judge has not ruled on either.
"This case should never have been filed," Robert C. Heim, one of the bank's lead attorneys, said Wednesday in court.
Sheppard, who at one point said Nugent seems credible, offered both sides a chance to schedule another hearing. He also urged Citizens to produce additional documents and data that O'Neill's attorneys said they had not yet received.
Read more about developer J. Brian O'Neill's case against Citizens Bank of Pennsylvania, and more about commercial development in the region, at http://go.philly.com/commercial
Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.