It would be understatement to say that 11,077 residential and business customers of Columbia Gas in Andover, Lawrence and North Andover were anticipating the arrival of their cut of the company's $143 million class action settlement.
The money was meant to compensate for losses related to the September 2018 gas disaster, from damage to buildings and homes to the emotional and psychological tolls of those who lived through it.
But the payments were especially timely in light of a pandemic, soaring unemployment and a simmering recession.
In fact, lawyers involved in the process sped up the first batch of payments due to the effects of COVID-19.
But for some 175 people, those checks were held up, and they stood to lose 11% right off the top.
The reason was money owed the attorney they'd hired soon after the disaster, David Raimondo. He’s a private lawyer not among those who worked on the class-action case and who were set to divide $26.1 million from the utility's payout for legal and administrative costs.
Of course, that's not a distinction that matters much to Raimondo’s clients. Luckily, after some hue and cry — and consultation with other lawyers, including Attorney General Maura Healey’s office — he told a reporter he’d had a change of heart and decided it best just to drop the fees and send people their money.
The $880 fee that Raimondo would’ve charged against the average settlement check of $8,000 represented about two and a half weeks worth of per capita income in Lawrence, where well over half of those who filed claims live or work
State Sen. Diana DiZoglio called the fee “suspicious and exorbitant," and she questioned whether everyone being assessed the charge had a signed agreement to cover Raimondo’s contingency.
Thanks go to DiZoglio for pressing Healey to look into the matter. While it’s still not clear that Raimondo ever should have assessed his fees in the first place, the important thing is that he reversed course and did what was right in the end.