Columbia Falls Aluminum Company
In which conscience compelled daring action, and victory came only after an epic legal battle in the courts, against the backdrop of events that unfolded on the ground in the community of Columbia Falls—and around the world.
A crisis of conscience compelled Bobbie Gilmore to seek our counsel in the early 1990s. Bobbie was the chief accountant for the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC), which employed over 1,000 workers at its smelter in Columbia Falls. Her analysis of the company’s financial records led her to believe that the owners were cheating its workers out of payments they were owed under a profit-sharing agreement. Bobbie was scrupulous about her duties of confidentiality and loyalty to the company, and so was torn about how to hold the owners to account for payments withheld from the workers.
After more than six years of work, a small Kalispell law firm successfully settled a huge lawsuit brought against the owners of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company. From left are firm partners Roger Sullivan, Jon Heberling, Dale McGarvey, and Allan McGarvey. The men are pictured among some of the more than 100 boxes of documents they used in the lawsuit. PHOTO BY DAILY INTERLAKE.
Six years of fighting.
“Indeed, it was a victory for the dignity of a hardworking Montana community. While it took years of hard work to fight through the corporate defenses of this particular Goliath, in the end, through grit, grace, and legal expertise, Bobbie prevailed!”
This was not our firm’s first foray into legal challenges involving the largest industrial employer in Flathead County. In the 1970s, our firm helped a local dentist, Loren Kreck, file a class action suit against the Anaconda Company, then the owner of CFAC, over the floride air pollution that was contaminating plant and animal life in the path of its toxic plume, including Glacier National Park. We were up against Montana’s most powerful company, and many community members were concerned that bringing clean air back would come at the cost of the town’s economic lifeblood. Nevertheless, over time, more than 600 plaintiffs joined the suit, including concerned residents, landowners, ranchers.
Eventually, the case achieved the desired result: The smelter installed new environmental controls, decreasing their daily toxic fluoride pollution from 10,000 pounds to 861 pounds. Not lost on the community was the fact that these improvements in environmental compliance ultimately helped keep this aluminum smelter operational long after non-compliant smelters were shuttered. The Flathead Beacon covered the case, writing about how “squaring off against the corporate giant, and prevailing through a compromise that was in the best interest of the community” remains one of our firm’s proudest accomplishments.
Then, a decade later, we were confronted with a different form of corporate abuse. In 1985, new owners of the aluminum smelter struck a profit-sharing bargain with the workers in exchange for reductions in wages and benefits: “a dollar in my pocket is a dollar in yours.” Bobbie’s analysis of the financial records showed that while the owners paid workers less than $100 million in profit sharing over a five year period, they took more than $200 million for themselves.
This time, we designed a conversion class action lawsuit. We proclaimed with this filing that CFAC’s owners had taken the workers’ money. Crafting this action using old legal theories put us in a strong position in court, even as the CFAC owners waged a war of attrition on the workers.
As the case played out in court, motion after motion, we chased down massive assets hidden in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, the Isle of Man, and Gibralter. Almost six years later, just two weeks before Bobbie’s and the other workers’ scheduled trial at Federal Court in Mis-soula, the owners capitulated, agreeing to pay the workers nearly $100 million. The case caught the attention of the New York Times, which published a feature story outlining the dramatic saga. It was a resounding victory not only of one determined woman’s conscience over complicity, but of workers standing up against corporate injustice. Indeed, it was a victory for the dignity of a hardworking Montana community. While it took years of hard work to fight through the corporate defenses of this particular Goliath, in the end, through grit, grace, and legal expertise, Bobbie prevailed!