MINNEAPOLIS (Legal Newsline) – Texas plaintiffs lawyer Mikal Watts is being accused by a colleague and farmers of shady behavior and criticizing the class action mechanism in massive litigation over genetically modified corn sold by Syngenta.
Minneapolis lawyer Douglas Nill’s recent lawsuit names several law firms and a former congressman as a defendant and seeks to void contracts with 60,000 growers with estimated attorneys fees of $200 million, citing numerous media reports about the battle for clients.
According to Nill, Watts secretly opted his clients out of a federal class action against seed producer Syngenta in order to receive 40 percent fees and litigated in Minnesota state court rather than federal courts because federal courts act as fiduciaries.
He wrote that Watts, after criticizing class actions to his clients, reached an agreement with class counsel and didn’t tell his clients about it, while misleading multidistrict litigation Judge John Lungstrum of Kansas.
Lungstrum has not approved the settlement that plaintiffs and Syngenta reached last year, after jurors in an initial trial awarded $218 million to farmers.
Syngenta agreed to deposit $1.5 billion in a common fund to settle claims of all growers, including the Watts group.
Nill wrote that Lungstrum could exercise his authority to cap the contracts.
"However, the court will have to cap the contract at zero to prevent a situation where farmers are not assessed more fees and expenses than of the merits of those proceedings and what is in the best interest of farmers,” he wrote.
He claims defendants also misled Hennepin County Judge Laurie Miller, who presided over a class action for Minnesota farmers.
He wrote that defendants told growers that mass tort individual suits were better than a class action because class actions recover only coupons for plaintiffs.
Nill attributes such a statement to former U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, a Democrat from Belleville, Ill., quoting the Champaign News-Gazette about a meeting in Champaign, Ill. on Sept. 23, 2015.
The newspaper reported, “Additionally, the firm is filing suits in Minnesota, where Syngenta Seeds is located, as opposed to filing in a federal court...Enyart said the advantage to this was that instead of getting a discount for seed corn in the future, as in a class action case, there would be a gross settlement fee and the firm would simply send the farmer a check.”
“The statement is misleading and a fraud of omission,” Nill wrote.
Litigation started in 2014, after China refused American corn shipments.
Chinese officials declared they had not approved genetic modification of seeds that Syngenta sold under the names of Viptera and Duracade.
The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated federal suits and assigned them to Lungstrum.
According to Nill, Watts never told clients that the Kansas proceedings included potential class actions that would cover them.
Instead, he wrote, Watts commenced a scheme of false advertising to persuade growers to authorize individual suits with 40 percent contingency fees.
Nill wrote that defendants dishonestly told farmers that only those who signed up with them were eligible to pursue claims.
He wrote that they began town hall meetings across the Corn Belt and initiated a barrage of websites.
He wrote that Watts engaged lawyers and firms as joint venture partners to conduct meetings and solicit growers for a share of the fee.
Nill named Yira Law Office, Hovland and Rasmus, Dewald Deaver, Givens Law, Mauro Archer and Associates, Johnson Law Group, Wagner Reese, VanDerGinst Law, Patton Hoversten, Cross Law Firm, Pagel Weikum, Wojtalewicz Law Firm, Daniel M. Homolka, and Michael Miller as defendants.
He wrote that Minnesota media quoted Watts saying 40 percent was standard for this type of litigation.
He wrote that Watts didn’t tell growers that in a class action with a large fund, the typical fee is 10 to 12 percent.
He wrote that according to the Pilot Tribune in Storm Lake, Iowa, Watts told a town hall group several times that the statute of limitations would soon run out.
The Pilot Tribune quoted him saying that under a class action, lawyers get all the money and farmers might get a gift certificate.
The Pilot Tribune reported, “He said that those who sign on as plaintiffs in his lawsuit can choose to opt out if they do not like whatever may occur, and go ahead suing individually instead.
Nill wrote that according to Agweek magazine, lawyer James Hovland told a group that a class action “can end in getting a free bag of seed or some credit.”
He wrote that according to the Mankato Free Press, lawyer James Homolka told a group that any settlement would most likely not include them.
“Corn growers who listened to Homolka already had effective representation, counsel leading the consolidated class actions, and did not need to do anything at all,” Nill claims
He wrote that Watts placed the articles on a website, “Lost Corn Income” and that the defendants mailed a flyer for a town hall meeting stating, “Only those who sign up are eligible to pursue claims.”
Defendants stated on 3 Dollar Corn website that class action lawyers often settle on terms that seem to work best for lawyers who bill by the hour, Nill claims
He wrote that Watts posted a statement that class counsel can negotiate a settlement without written permission.
He wrote that Watts stated that they place the class notice on page D-27, between the funerals and the funny pages.
“Watts is the massage therapist who stealthily lifts the client’s wallet while giving the massage,” Nill says.
He wrote that Watts posted a statement that the Minnesota court oversaw 90 percent of the claims in the nation, “when in fact the opposite is true.”
He wrote that 60,000 cases were 10 percent of 600,000 corn growers in the U.S.
He wrote that defendants concocted a scheme to buy their clients out of the class action through a joint prosecution agreement with class counsel.
He wrote that defendants never informed farmers of this agreement, which opted them out of the federal class without disclosure and consent.
He called it an epic fraud of omission.
“Lawyers cannot use private agreements for their own pecuniary interest, to exclude class members from the class in advance of class certification, and then say the class members were never members of the class,” Nill wrote.
“Farmers were deprived of the opportunity to make an informed decision as to whether to pursue and individual claim or a class action claim without representation by defendants.”
He wrote that rulings in this case should go out across the legal landscape as a just result for dishonest and greedy lawyers who abuse the process and exploit clients.
Nill practices at Farmlaw.