The outside law firm for the Milton Hershey School made an eye-catching personnel move while defending the wealthy institution from two federal lawsuits: It hired the chief judge’s son.

The Blue Bell-based firm Elliot Greenleaf brought on Gregory Conner, a 2016 law school graduate, in September, according to his LinkedIn page.

Conner’s father, Chief U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner, continued to preside over the school’s lawsuits in Harrisburg until he disclosed his son’s hiring in early January and confidentially polled attorneys about whether he should remain on the cases. He recused himself on Jan. 23.

Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner in Harrisburg dismissed multiple negligence claims against the Milton Hershey School in 2017 but restored them in December.
U.S. District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania
Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner in Harrisburg dismissed multiple negligence claims against the Milton Hershey School in 2017 but restored them in December.

Plaintiffs attorneys and a legal expert say Conner’s disqualification and a recent legal decision could add months or more than a year to the two suits, which were filed in 2016. One involves a young man who was expelled and says the school tried to change his sexual orientation. The other was filed by the family of a student who took her life after the school failed to treat her depression and banned her from campus, her family’s suit contends. The school has spent millions defending them. Conner has regularly sealed documents in the cases, making decisions that some First Amendment experts say are overly broad.

The judge’s recent disclosure stunned plaintiffs attorneys who said they had no idea that the judge’s son had been hired. They declined further comment.

Judge Conner said he thought it was “better to err on the side of caution" and ask the attorneys if he should disqualify himself because of his son’s employment. He said it is "not uncommon for judicial officers to have children join the legal profession, and this is standard procedure.”

Conner sought an opinion on his son’s hiring from the federal Judicial Conference Committee Code of Conduct in late November or early December. On Dec. 21, the conduct board issued a confidential opinion and guidance saying that Conner wasn’t required to disqualify himself but that it would be prudent to ask the plaintiff and defense attorneys if they believed he could continue impartially as judge, court documents state.

“I don’t think it is a problem for the judge. What is the judge supposed to do? Tell his son he can’t go to that firm?” said Stewart E. Sterk, law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in New York City. Sterk called Gregory Conner’s hiring a “pretty problematic decision by the [law] firm” and would seem to be done to “influence the judge or get the judge off the case” because of the potential conflict of interest.

Jarad Handelman, the firm’s managing shareholder in its Harrisburg office, is a lead defense attorney for the Hershey School and its charitable board. He declined to provide the date of Gregory Conner’s hiring or the reason. He referred to Judge Conner’s early January disclosure in court that Gregory Conner had no involvement in the Hershey suits, and declined further comment.

Counting Handelman, Gregory Conner became the second attorney in the firm’s Harrisburg office, according to its web site.

The 46-attorney Elliott Greenleaf firm is one of the most politically connected in the state. Its attorneys include Bruce W. Kauffman, a former federal judge and Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice; former Republican State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey’s brother Patrick, its web site says. Handelman is a former general counsel to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

The hiring issue is a sensitive one for judges. Just last month, U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson Jr. in Philadelphia recused himself from a case when BakerHostetler, one of the firms appearing before him, disclosed that it was considering hiring the judge’s son, according to the law industry publication Law360. The opposing counsel expressed concern and the judge removed himself.

Elizabeth Kukura, visiting assistant professor at the Thomas R. Kline School of Law at Drexel University, said that “we are concerned about the actual conflicts of interest where there is a bias, and we are concerned about the public perception of a bias.” She said that “in the end,” Conner made the right decision by recusing himself.

Gregory graduated from the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2016 and clerked for Commonwealth Court Judge P. Kevin Brobson in Harrisburg, his LinkedIn profile says. The elder Conner said he had nothing to do with Elliott Greenleaf’s hiring his son. Gregory Conner did not respond to an email.

A seventh-grade computer class at the Milton Hershey School, which has about 2,000 students.
Margo Reed / File Photograph
A seventh-grade computer class at the Milton Hershey School, which has about 2,000 students.

The Hershey School is the nation’s richest private school, with a $14 billion endowment pumped up by a continuing stream of Hershey Co. dividends from the sale of chocolate bars, Reese’s, and other candy. The school has weathered a string of scandals over the last decade, ranging from buying a golf course partly owned by a board member at an inflated price to lavish board compensation and spending that culminated in a settlement with the Pennsylvania attorney general in 2016.

>> READ MORE: No candy-coating lack of charity at Hershey School

The school provides free education and boarding to about 2,000 poor children, and is controlled by the Hershey Trust, whose board members are paid a minimum of $110,000 a year. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has said the school, with an endowment larger than those of all but a few top universities, should expand its mission to serve thousands more students around Pennsylvania.

The two suits against the school have run up millions of dollars in legal costs and pitted the school against attorneys at one of Philadelphia’s premiere firms, Dilworth Paxson.

One suit was filed by the family of Abbie Bartels, a 14-year-old girl who killed herself in 2013 after the school banned her from campus for her depression and suicidal thoughts, the suit claims. It says the school has a “shadow policy” to expel students who show signs of mental illness.

Abbie Bartels, 14, was told she could not return to the 2,000-student boarding school for her eighth-grade graduation.
The Chocolate Trust
Abbie Bartels, 14, was told she could not return to the 2,000-student boarding school for her eighth-grade graduation.

The second case involves Adam Dobson, a former student who claims that he was expelled after he underwent treatment for depression and told school officials he was considering suicide. He also has said that school employees sought to change his sexual orientation. Dobson said he was forced by the school’s house parents to watch a gay-conversion video while boarding at the school. A second graduate, Marcous Marchese, told the Inquirer he also was forced to watch a gay-conversion video about the same time as Dobson. Health experts have discredited such “conversion therapies” as demeaning and useless.

School spokeswoman Lisa Scullin said in a 2017 statement that the school’s psychologists "would never condone any form of ‘gay conversion therapy.’ "

Attorneys at Dilworth Paxson estimate that the Hershey charity has spent $4 million defending against the allegations. Dilworth Paxson based its estimate on its costs to litigate, which it did not provide. Dilworth Paxon attorneys represent the Bartels family and Weisberg Law in Philadelphia represents Dobson.

The Bartels and Dobson suits contain a combined 370 docket entries and thousands of pages of documents, several of them sealed, including the school’s motion for summary judgment in the Bartels case, by Judge Conner.

“These routine sealing orders seem to be highly unusual and a constitutional violation," First Amendment lawyer Bruce E.H. Johnson, with the Seattle firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, said after looking at sealed dockets in the Bartels case since last June. “According to the U.S. Supreme Court, there is a strong presumption in favor of public access to court proceedings.”

Conner disclosed his son’s hiring at Elliott Greenleaf in a Jan. 4 order, noting that Gregory had no involvement or financial interest in their outcome. On Jan. 23, Conner reassigned the cases to U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III.

Jones will now have to get up to speed on the complex litigation and revisit one of Conner’s most significant decisions. In 2017, Conner tossed out the negligence claims against the Hershey School — a big interim win for the Hershey School that would have insulated the institution from personal damage claims.

Conner concluded in that decision that the Hershey School had no broad social responsibilities for the welfare of its impoverished students beyond a three-page contract. Conner also rejected the plaintiffs attorneys' emergency appeal of his decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

But this December, and about the time that he sought the guidance of the judicial conduct board over his son’s hiring at Elliott Greenleaf, Conner reversed himself and put negligence claims — and the potential for financial damages in a jury trial — back into the suits.

“Federal judges rarely change their mind on reconsideration, and when they do, that kind of open-mindedness should be celebrated,” David Hoffman, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said this week of Conner’s decision. “I think he was wrong in the first time and right the second. But reasonable minds can disagree.”