SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s newly hired solicitor general faces sanctions in a federal court case she previously worked on in which a judge says she made false statements and representations.
U.S. Magistrate Judge William Matthewman had strong words for how Melissa Holyoak objected to the settlement of a class-action lawsuit against National Tire and Battery in Florida.
“The court is concerned that Ms. Holyoak may have 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. If not intentional, her conduct appears to be reckless or negligent,” the judge wrote.
The lawsuit claims that National Tire and Battery failed to provide a federally required paper registration form with each tire sold. The form includes the tire dealer’s contact information and identification number on each tire in the event of a safety recall.
In a statement Wednesday, Holyoak said she made an honest mistake in interpreting the settlement contract.
“Immediately after plaintiffs pointed out the mistake, I conceded the error and withdrew that portion of my objection. While I’m embarrassed that the incorrect argument didn’t adhere to the high standards I hold myself to, I don’t believe sanctions are appropriate because it was not in bad faith and I was not intending to delay the proceedings,” she said.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes hired Holyoak as solicitor general earlier this month to replace Tyler Green, who left for private practice. Her first day on the job was Wednesday.
Holyoak made the attorney general’s office aware of the misunderstanding up front, and it accepts her explanation, said spokesman Richard Piatt.
Holyoak was involved in the Florida case as president and general counsel of the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute, which she co-founded in 2019. It describes itself as a nonprofit public interest law firm that challenges administrative and regulatory actions and abuses of the class action and civil justice system that exceed constitutional limits.
She also worked as senior counsel with the Center for Class Action Fairness, which is now part of the institute.
The settlement provided $650,000 to attorneys but no compensation to the plaintiffs. Because the agreement did not change the existing tire registration system, Holyoak’s objection did not jeopardize the safety of anyone on the road, Piatt said.
Matthewman wrote that Holyoak’s primary argument in objecting was that it was a “legal error” for the court to certify the settlement because the plaintiffs waived their claims for monetary damages. The judge disagreed, writing that her “statements and representations to the court are patently false.”
In an order requiring Holyoak to show why she shouldn’t be sanctioned, Matthewman wrote that he was “especially troubled” that her argument was based on a false premise and that she reiterated it “countless” times.
“It would have been obvious to Ms. Holyoak — indeed, to a first-year law student — that her strenuous objections were inapplicable had she simply taken the time to actually read the settlement,” he wrote.
The judge speculated that Holyoak either failed to read the settlement before filing her “frivolous” objection, filed the objection without investigating her clams, improperly used a cookie-cutter objection, knowingly and willfully made a false representation to obstruct the proceedings, or some combination of all those things.
Holyoak has until Sept. 16 to respond to the judge’s order to show why he shouldn’t impose sanctions, which might include her paying the plaintiffs’ legal fees incurred while responding to her false statements and representations, according to court documents.
In a Sept. 7 press release announcing Holyoak’s hiring, Reyes said she brings a track record of success in the courtroom and extraordinary litigation, trial and appellate experience.
“Her diverse career experience is just what the state needs as our population continues to grow and more is at stake in every legal case we handle in our office,” he said.
Piatt said Holyoak and the Center for Class Action Fairness have fought unfair class-action lawsuits “like this one” for over 10 years, and returned more than $200 million to consumers and plaintiffs.