WINFIELD — West Virginia pharmacist Randy Ballengee was indicted a week ago on federal charges that he filled fraudulent prescriptions for opioid painkillers.
On Tuesday, the pharmacist’s lawyer in a separate case was asking a judge to force some of Ballengee’s former customers and their family members to divulge their passwords to Facebook and other social media accounts.
The request included the Facebook password of a 12-year-old boy whose parents are among the 29 residents of Mingo County and Martin County, Kentucky, who are suing Ballengee and his now-closed pharmacy. They allege Ballengee, along with other local pharmacies and doctors, fed their drug addictions by prescribing and dispensing too many opioids.
“Their discovery [letter] was sent to a 12-year-old boy who’s not a party to the action,” said Jim Cagle, who’s representing the former drug users. “They’re asking for a 12-year-old boy’s passwords. He’s here [in the courtroom].”
At a hearing Tuesday, John M. Huff, who’s representing Ballengee and Tug Valley in the decade-old Mingo pill-addiction lawsuit, told Judge Joseph Reeder that defense lawyers want access to the Mingo residents’ social media accounts to rebut the former addicts’ assertion that the doctors and pharmacists got them addicted and “ruined their lives.”
Huff said he’s already reviewed social media accounts of some residents suing Ballengee and Tug Valley. One woman traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend President Donald Trump’s inauguration, then later to a Trump “Make America Great Again” political rally. Another resident made posts about recent “beach trips,” Huff told the judge. And another showed of photographs of his “race cars” on social media.
“These folks claim their lives were ruined by addiction,” said Huff, an attorney at Jackson Kelly, one of West Virginia’s largest law firms. “All we’re trying to do is get to the bottom of their claims.”
Huff said he wasn’t searching for posts that would embarrass the people suing the pharmacists and doctors.
“Nude pictures, lewd discussions, or things like that,” he said. “I’m only looking for things that relate to their claims.”
Reeder said he wouldn’t order the plaintiffs and their family members to disclose their social media passwords. Instead, they will have to turn over printouts of their social media postings.
In 2010 and 2011, the Mingo and Martin county residents, all former patients at Mountain Medical Center, in Williamson, filed lawsuits against the now-shuttered Tug Valley Pharmacy, in Williamson, and Sav-Rite Pharmacy, in Kermit, along with B&K Pharmacy, in South Williamson, Kentucky. Four doctors — Victor Teleron, William Ryckman, Katherine Hoover and Diane Shafer — also were sued.
The former Mountain Medical patients allege the doctors and pharmacies caused them to become addicted to pain pills such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.
A jury trial for seven of the cases has been scheduled for March in Mingo County, after lawyers for both sides agreed Thursday to postpone a September trial date.
Last week, Ballengee, Tug Valley’s former owner, was arrested and charged with conspiring with Ohio-based drug distributor Miami-Luken to illegally distribute pain pills. Sav-Rite’s former owner, Jim Wooley, pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2011 and spent six months in federal prison.
The three pharmacies were among the top sellers of those two prescription opioids in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, according to newly released government data. Between 2006 and 2012, Sav-Rite dispensed 13.2 million prescription painkillers, followed by Tug Valley Pharmacy with 8.8 million pills and B&K with 4.25 million doses of the highly addictive pain medications.
HD Media, which owns the Gazette-Mail and the Herald-Dispatch, and The Washington Post went to court to pry loose the opioid shipment numbers. Last week, a federal judge issued an order that gave the go-ahead for the release of the information over the objections of the Justice Department and drug companies.
Last December, a congressional committee issued a scathing report that chastised drug distribution companies for shipping massive quantities of prescription painkillers to Sav-Rite and Tug Valley.
Former Mingo circuit judge Michael Thornsbury oversaw the Mingo pill-addiction lawsuits until he was removed from the bench following a federal investigation. He pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge in 2013 and was sentenced to 50 months in prison.
After Thornsbury’s removal, Senior Status Judge John Cummings oversaw the lawsuits. He retired, and Reeder was assigned the case. Tuesday’s hearing was in Reeder’s Putnam County courtroom.
The Mingo County lawsuits had been on hiatus for several years, after the West Virginia Supreme Court issued a 3-2 ruling in 2015 that kept the Mingo cases alive. The court ruled the Mingo residents had the right to sue doctors and pharmacies for contributing to their addictions, even though they admitted to breaking the law and abusing drugs in previous years.
After the Supreme Court paved the way for the Mingo lawsuits to continue, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill in 2016 that blocked similar cases in the future. The legislation did not affect complaints, such as Mingo County’s, filed before the law was enacted.
The pharmacies’ lawyers also have asked Mingo residents to turn over employment records, income tax documents, medical files, and lists of the prescription drugs and street drugs they have abused.
“In every case, we do this,” Huff said. “We’re not trying to ruin anyone’s lives by requesting these records. I don’t think we’re asking too much of these people.”