MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – A class of more than 60,000 farmers claim they were tricked into agreeing to pay an unfair amount of attorney fees in their cases against agribusiness giant Syngenta over its genetically modified corn.
Lead plaintiff Kenneth P. Kellogg and his company Kellogg Farms sued the Texas-based law firm Watts Guerra LLP and its various joint venture partners Tuesday in Minneapolis federal court.
Kellogg claims Watts Guerra orchestrated a scheme against more than 60,000 corn growers in the United States in connection with lawsuits against Syngenta filed in federal and state courts since 2014 over its genetically modified corn.
Syngenta is the world’s largest seed supplier. Lawsuits were filed across the country against the company arising from its commercialization of genetically modified corn seed products Viptera and Duracade, which contained the MIR 162 trait that was not approved by China.
Kellogg and other farmers alleged Syngenta’s commercialization of its products caused genetically modified corn to be commingled with the rest of the corn supply in the United States, and that China rejected all imports of corn from the United States because of the MIR 162 trait.
Corn prices dropped significant as a result, the farmers alleged. One lawsuit claimed U.S. corn exports dropped 85 percent after Sygenta’s rush to the market.
According to Tuesday’s lawsuit filed by Douglas J. Nill with FarmLaw in Minneapolis, the farmers were solicited to sign 40 percent contingent fee retainer contracts with Watts Guerra and its partners to pursue individual lawsuits.
But Kellogg claims he and other farmers were “secretly excluded” from participating in class actions against Syngenta in federal court multidistrict litigation in Kansas and Minnesota, where attorneys’ fees are determined by the courts as fiduciaries for members of the class.
Last year, a federal jury in Kansas awarded nearly $218 million to a group of a farmers who sued Syngenta over its GMO corn, and the agribusiness giant reached a $1.5 billion global settlement in March to end all the pending lawsuits.
“Farmers were dishonestly told that a ‘mass tort … individual suit’ is better than a class action, because class actions only recover coupons for plaintiffs,” Tuesday’s complaint states.
The 142-page lawsuit quotes attorney Mikal Watts at a meeting of corn growers in Iowa in 2015 as saying that, with a class action, “lawyers will get all the money and the farmers may get a gift certificate.”
“Attorney fee awards in class actions, with a common fund damage award, are typically about 10-12 percent of the fund for funds of $200-900 million or larger,” the complaint states. “With defendants’ ‘mass tort …individual suit’ model, each grower will pay 40 percent of the claim proceeds for the same result.”
Kellogg and the other farmers call Watts Guerra’s alleged fee scheme “an epic fraud of omission.”
“Defendants never advised farmers of the class action proceedings in federal and state court covering the farmers and their claims. Defendants never advised farmers of the merits of those proceedings and what is in the best interest of the farmers,” the lawsuit states.
The farmers are asking the court to declare their retainer contracts as void. They also seek a declaration that the law firms have forfeited their claim to any compensation from the farmers.
Mikal Watts of Watts Guerra said in a statement that the “lawsuit is worth less than the $400 it took for this single lawyer to file it.”
“In fact, his lawsuit is not worth the paper it is written on, nor the ink it took to pollute the pages of his petition. This lawsuit is without merit, and it is frivolous,” he said Wednesday.
Watts continued, “We will vigorously defend this frivolous lawsuit filed yesterday, and will defeat it with both facts and law, and with the same diligence, ethical conduct and hard work that it took to achieve this settlement on behalf of farmers across America in the first place.”
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Nill, echoed the claims in his lawsuit in a statement: “The defendant law firms deprived farmers of the opportunity to make an informed decision as to whether to pursue an individual claim or a class action claim without representation by the defendants, hereby subjecting the farmers to defendants’ fraudulent scheme to collect unreasonable fees.”