Law firms seek admission into hog suit
by Chris Berendt Staff Writer
Two out-of-state firms with a track record of litigation against pork producers officially requested admission last week in pending civil suits filed against Murphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods — the matter is still being mulled by the court.
In a filing made to Wake County Clerk of Superior Court Oct. 7, plaintiffs attorneys 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. made a motion for pro hac vice admission. Pro hac vice is a term meaning “for this event,” where a firm not admitted to practice in a certain jurisdiction is allowed to participate in a particular case.
The matter was heard in Wake County Superior Court Oct. 15 and defense attorney Mark Anderson with McGuireWoods LLP, representing Murphy-Brown and Smithfield, said Tuesday, a week later, the two sides were still awaiting a decision.
“The judge has not ruled,” Anderson said. “He is still considering his decision.”
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. Those attorneys have already been working closely with Wallace and Graham of Salisbury, N.C. and its attorneys Mona Lisa Wallace and John Hughes in the pending litigation.
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. Since that time, there have been about 900 claimants from Sampson and surrounding counties alleging nuisance at 59 farms in North Carolina, owned and operated by farmers with Murphy-Brown LLC, subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.
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. They have said they will not settle any suits.
With defense attorneys waiving any mediation process, the nuisance disputes materialized into 25 civil suits, with Speer and Middleton named as attorneys.
Speer, Middleton and others said they intended to continue representing their clients and, in their pro hac vice request, asked to do so as if they were regularly admitted and licensed members of the Bar of North Carolina “in good standing.” The motion included signed client statements. In affidavits, Speer and Middleton said, to their knowledge, they have never been sanctioned or disqualified as counsel for any asserted ethical violation.
“Plaintiffs and clients have sought our firm’s assistance in numerous investigations and actions and have moved for the pro hac vice admission of attorneys from the firm in multiple actions,” they said in separate statements. “On each occasion, the motion for admission for pro hac vice was granted.”
Speer has been primarily devoted to environmental and farm nuisance law for 30 years. Middleton has also engaged in agricultural litigation since 2000, acting as co-counsel with Speer, trying “numerous industrial farm nuisance cases in multiple jurisdictions,” court documents show. Those include cases in Speer told the court his firm has “represented hundreds of families who peaceable use and enjoyment of their properties was destroyed by indistrialized hog farm CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) including those operated by Premium Standard Farms, a large hog producer eventually acquired by Smithfield.”
A motion was filed last month in Wake County Superior Court by Anderson and other defendants’ attorneys representing Smithfield and Murphy-Brown to prohibit the admission of the Middleton Law Firm and Speer Law Firm to appear pro hac vice. A third attorney for plaintiffs, Wallace and Graham is also included in the motion.
The 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.”
Attorneys for Smithfield and Murphy-Brown said the actions were in violation of N.C. law and rules of professional conduct. Middleton and Speer denied those accusations.
“No one has solicited any individuals to be clients of this firm, have initiated contact with non-clients in order to get them to become clients, has ever told any individual that he/she would receive a certain amount of money or made any promises of any type to any individual,” Middleton stated.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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