Farm nuisance suits move forward amid plaintiff shake-up

Chris Berendt Staff Writer

January 5, 2014

On the heels of two out-of-state law firms being granted admission to represent clients in Sampson and surrounding counties in farm nuisance disputes against Murphy-Brown and Smithfield, the in-state sponsoring law firm has moved to withdraw from the litigation.

At the end of October, Charles Speer and Peter Bieri of Speer Law Firm out of Kansas City, Mo. and Richard Middleton Jr., Stephen Sael and Richard Harrison of The Middleton Law Firm out of Savannah, Ga. were granted pro hac vice admission, meaning “for this event,” where a firm not admitted to practice in a certain jurisdiction is allowed to do so for a particular case.

Speer and Middleton have a track record of litigation against pork producers. Speer has been primarily devoted to environmental and farm nuisance law for 30 years. Middleton has engaged in agricultural litigation since 2000, acting as co-counsel with Speer, trying “numerous industrial farm nuisance cases in multiple jurisdictions,” court documents show.

Just a month and a half later after their admission, on Dec. 9, attorneys Mona Lisa Wallace and John Hughes of Wallace & Graham in Salisbury filed a motion to withdraw as sponsoring pro hac vice counsel and approve substitute counsel.

That matter will be heard in court on Friday.

According to the motion, the out-of-state lawyers have obtained new N.C. counsel, F. Hill Allen of Tharrington Smith LLP of Raleigh. Withdrawal can be accomplished “without material adverse effect on the interests of the clients” because they have assented to the termination of the representation, the plaintiff motion states.

This week, leading up to a court date Friday to hear the matter, Murphy-Brown spokesman Don Butler has again chided “money-grubbing” attorneys for filing suit.

“We still believe the nuisance claims are frivolous and without merit, with the primary intent of generating money for greedy out-of-state lawyers,” said Butler, director of government relations and public affairs for Warsaw-based Murphy-Brown. “We continue to see these nuisance lawsuits as a threat, not just to our company and our contract growers, and believe that this kind of litigation is a potential threat to all of agriculture.”

The disputes, alleging foul smell and pollution, including unsanitary storage of hog waste in lagoons and the spraying of liquid manure on adjoining land, were filed in the Wake County Courthouse in July 2013. In subsequent months, there were close to 1,000 claimants from Sampson and surrounding counties who alleged nuisance at 59 farms in North Carolina, owned and operated by farmers with Murphy-Brown.

Murphy-Brown officials have cited the multitude of safety regulations that are followed, and said they were aware of no formal complaints in recent years prior to July’s filed disputes. Butler has vowed that Murphy will not settle any suits. With defense attorneys waiving any mediation process, the nuisance disputes materialized into 25 civil suits.

Defense attorney Mark Anderson with McGuireWoods LLP, representing Murphy-Brown LLC and parent company Smithfield Foods, sought to prohibit the firms from admission, citing actions that were in violation of N.C. law and rules of professional conduct. Speer and Middleton maintained they had adhered to all N.C. laws and should not be barred from carrying out farm nuisance lawsuits against Murphy-Brown and Smithfield.

A defense motion called into question the practices of the firms in engaging in what Smithfield and Murphy-Brown attorneys called “a widespread mass solicitation campaign … (in which) representatives of these firms have knocked on doors unannounced and approached strangers in parking lots and attempted to sign them to unethical contracts.”

Middleton and Speer denied those accusations. Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens, in his Oct. 24 ruling, granted pro hac vice admission but called into question a document used initially when speaking with potential clients.

“It is established that out-of-state counsel with the Middleton Firm and the Speer Firm, prior to the institution of this action, and prior to moving for pro hac vice admission, utilized a document entitled Contract for Legal Representation, which was in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct and void as a matter of law,” Stephens stated in his ruling.

He called the widespread dissemination of those contracts “disturbing” and said they presented a circumstance that could warrant a denial of the firms’ applications for pro hac vice admission. However, the judge pointed to new valid legal representation contracts used by the plaintiffs that corrected those errors.

“Those errors in professional conduct appear to arise out of failure of the Middleton and Speer law firms to properly educate themselves on the professional responsibility requirements for lawyers practicing in this state and not from a knowing or intentional violation of the rules of conduct applicable to North Carolina license attorneys,” the court ruling stated. “As such, the court believes that future violations will not occur.”

In his ruling, Stephens said he was mindful of the need for individual citizens to have competent legal representation, especially in cases when those claimants might otherwise have difficulty retaining by experienced attorneys willing to champion their cause.

This week, Butler again took those firms to task, saying that money — not championing the causes of citizens — was the firms’ motive.

“It’s a shame that this bunch of money-grubbing out of state lawyers are pursuing these claims against law-abiding people who have done nothing wrong,” he said.

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at