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REGION: Judge reopens settlement period for halal class action lawsuit; objecting attorney ungagged

newsherald mi-smallArticle Curtesy of The News-Harald
By:  Joe Slezak
Published Date: 03/12/2013
REGION: Judge reopens settlement period for halal class action lawsuit; objecting attorney ungagged

DETROIT — An attorney upset over a class-action settlement involving customer deception at a Dearborn fast-food restaurant can speak his mind about the subject again.

And, because he spoke his mind before a judge ordered him to stop, the settlement period has been extended.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Kathleen Macdonald ruled Monday that the settlement period for those who ate McChicken sandwiches and Chicken McNuggets that were advertised as halal but weren’t at two east-end McDonald’s restaurants will be extended for another 28 days. The time period started yesterday and ends April 8. It was at McDonald’s request.

The new final settlement hearing will be at 10 a.m. April 17 before Macdonald.

“Halal” refers to meeting Islamic requirements for preparing food. God’s name must be invoked before an animal providing meat for consumption is slaughtered.

The class action suit covers anyone who ate the non-halal chicken at two McDonald’s — 13158 Ford Road and 14860 Michigan Ave. — since Sept. 1, 2005. They are believed to be the only McDonald’s in the country to serve halal chicken.

Ahmed Ahmed of Dearborn Heights sued McDonald’s and franchise owner Finley’s Management Co. because he ate the falsely advertised chicken at the Ford Road McDonald’s. According to the suit, the restaurant served non-halal chicken when it ran out of halal and didn’t tell its customers.

The judge ruled Jan. 18 that McDonald’s and Finley’s must pay $700,000 to settle the suit. Ahmed was to get about $20,000; the Health Unit on Davison Avenue Inc. in Detroit, also known as HUDA, was to get about $274,000; the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn was to get about $150,000; and attorneys were to get about $230,000.

Ahmed is being represented by Jaafar & Mahdi Law Group of Dearborn, with Kassem Dakhlallah as the lead attorney.

Attorney Majed Moughni, who had not been involved in the case before the settlement, posted on the Dearborn Area Community Members Facebook page, which he runs, that he believed it was unfair that most of the money would not go to those who ate the haram, or forbidden, chicken. He asked for page members who ate the food to leave contact information for themselves and others who ate the meat. Dakhlallah filed a motion for injunctive relief against Moughni on Jan. 31. Macdonald ruled in Dakhlallah’s favor Feb. 7 and ordered Moughni to remove information about the case from his Facebook page and put her original class action settlement order and her order against him on the page, which he did. She also prohibited him from communicating with class action lawsuit members and the media about the case without prior written permission from her and Jaafar & Mahdi Law Group.

Moughni filed a motion Feb. 15 to overturn Macdonald’s ruling against him; she dismissed it Feb. 22.

Before Monday’s hearing, Macdonald held one hearing in open court, in which attorney Steven Kiousis, representing “certain objecting class members,” asked for more time to communicate with them and held a status hearing in her chambers.

Moughni did not attend either of those court dates, and also wasn’t in court Monday.

On Monday, Macdonald heard a motion by McDonald’s to lift the order against Moughni because it said he was not acting as an attorney when he solicited feedback on the page and by Paul Alan Levy of the Public Citizens Litigation Group of Washington, D.C., saying Moughni’s First Amendment rights of free speech were violated.

The American Civil Liberties Union concurred with Levy.

Macdonald denied the motion to vacate the order against Moughni, but also said it was a moot point because she granted McDonald’s request to extend the settlement period. She said Moughni can continue to identify himself as a class member, but can’t identify himself as an attorney in his case.

“If he even insinuates he was acting like an attorney, he’ll be back (before me),” she said, adding that Moughni identified himself as an attorney and sent correspondence from his Dearborn law office in this matter.

Levy had argued that Moughni “expressed his opinion very forcefully,” but was speaking as a member of the community and wasn’t soliciting clients. Levy said there is no evidence Moughni sought to be paid for gathering the feedback. He instead was rallying the community against a perceived injustice, according to Levy.

“He should be considered a hero,” Levy said. Levy said it would be different if Moughni urged the community to pack Macdonald’s courtroom or organized a demonstration outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, home of Wayne County Circuit Court’s Civil Division.

“Moughni is a class member like any other class member, but he’s a lawyer and has a Facebook page,” Levy said.

Kathryn Wood, an attorney for McDonald’s, said Moughni made “false and misleading statements to (the) class”; she also called his comments “outright false.”

She also said there is “ample evidence” he “was clearly acting as an attorney,” and even had one retainer agreement.

Thomas McNeill, another attorney for McDonald’s, said Moughni was acting as an attorney, gave “grossly false and inaccurate legal advice to the class” and said the injunction was appropriate. Eric Conn, an attorney for Finley’s, also called the injunction appropriate.

Dakhlallah said the idea that Moughni was not acting as an attorney is “unbelievable, simply absurd.”

He said his firm is “very proud of this settlement. ... It’s a great settlement.”

Macdonald said Moughni isn’t just an objector, and he can’t separate the fact he’s an attorney. She also said she didn’t like that he called the settlement a “backroom deal” and a “slap in the face” to the community.

“You don’t get to say when you’re an attorney or inject yourself,” she said.

Levy countered that Moughni has the right to state his opinion “through the marketplace of ideas.” As she was granting McDonald’s request for the additional 28 days, which all sides agreed with, the judge saidS, “Because of this lawyer’s action, the costs of resolving this case are spiraling out of control.”

“We’re taking about real dollars in the real world,” said Dakhlallah, who estimated that about $30,000 would come out of the class action money to pay attorney fees because of the extension. He said fewer needy people would get care at HUDA and fewer students would get scholarships through the museum.

The original proposed settlement notice is at www.jaafarandmahdi.com. The firm also has the notice available in Arabic and Bengali. Questions about the settlement can be directed to Dakhlallah or fellow attorneys Michael Jaafar or Zakaria Mahdi at 1-313-846-6400.

Those who object to the proposed settlement, wish to intervene or want to opt out if they’re in the settlement class can mail a written request to the court with a postmark by April 1 or hand-deliver it by April 8. Anyone who made a submission by Feb. 18, the end of the first notice period, doesn’t have to respond again.