Attorney, state Rep. Weldon taking on Hutcheson's federal case

Attorney, state Rep. Weldon taking on Hutcheson's federal case

January 31st, 2015 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Georgia State Representative Tom Weldon

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Georgia state Rep. Tom Weldon is joining Hutcheson Medical Center's forces.

Weldon entered a notice of appearance in U.S. District Court this week to legally represent the Fort Oglethorpe hospital in its lawsuits against Erlanger Health System. Weldon, R-Ringgold, is the son of Dr. Darrell Weldon, an obstetrician/gynecologist and the chairman of Hutcheson Medical Center's board.

Tom Weldon said he could not disclose how he became the hospital's lawyer.

"I'd really rather not discuss those kinds of things because I'm representing them as their attorney," he said. "I don't want to go too far in that area."

Weldon is Hutcheson's third lawyer in two months. Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes left the legal team Nov. 20, and local attorney McCracken Poston replaced him. Poston said Friday that he never intended to represent the hospital in federal court. He was just a place-holder until Hutcheson could replace Barnes.

But Poston said he will continue to represent the hospital in Catoosa County Superior Court, where that county's commission sued Hutcheson. They say the hospital has failed to give county officials legally required audits.

"It is my understanding that Tom Weldon will now handle the federal issues while I continue with what I was originally retained for," Poston said in a statement.

Hutcheson CEO Farrell Hayes did not return calls or emails Friday afternoon asking him how much the hospital has paid those three attorneys.

The legal battle pitting Erlanger and Hutcheson against each other began with a marriage. In 2011, when Hutcheson was losing about $1 million a month, it signed a contract with Erlanger.

The Chattanooga hospital began managing Hutcheson and extended it a $20 million line of credit. Catoosa and Walker county officials guaranteed that loan.

Hutcheson Medical Center

Hutcheson Medical Center

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

But the agreement between the officials fell apart in 2013 and Erlanger sued, demanding Hutcheson repay that $20 million. Hutcheson, in turn, sued Erlanger, claiming breach of contract. Hutcheson officials said Erlanger didn't hold up its end of the agreement -- failing to provide enough physicians to Hutcheson, for example.

Both cases are pending. In October, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy ruled that Erlanger could auction off Hutcheson's property on Jan. 6. But a potential sale was delayed by Hutcheson's decision to file for bankruptcy.

Weldon will represent Hutcheson and represent his district at the Legislature at the same time. He believes he can balance the work, especially with the lawsuits in limbo.

"The bankruptcy filing has bought some time," he said.

On the surface, Weldon's representation of the hospital where his father serves as board chairman does not present a conflict of interest. Tom Weldon wants the hospital to succeed. So does Darrell Weldon.

"If difficulties later arise, they can be confronted," said Timothy Terrell, an Emory University law professor who specializes in professional responsibility. "This does not appear to be any kind of 'unconsentable' conflict, like trying to represent both sides in a divorce case."

But, several legal experts say, even in a case like this, a conflict can arise. Clark Cunningham, a professor of law and ethics, said he could not speak to the specifics in this case.

However, a company's executive would not usually want his son providing legal advice, he said. Could the company properly evaluate the attorney's performance? And likewise, would the son ever suggest the company fire his father if it's needed?

"As a general rule," Cunningham said in an email, "a large corporation would want to consider possible conflicts of interest before hiring the son of the chairman of the board to represent the corporation. For example, could the cost and quality of services be evaluated objectively in such a situation?"

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.


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