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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Mikal Watts defeats competitor's lawsuit that claims he misled farmers who wanted to sue Syngenta

Lawsuits

By John Severance | Mar 27, 2019


Watts

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (Legal Newsline) – A federal judge in Kansas has dismissed a lawsuit brought against plaintiffs attorney Mikal Watts by one of his competitors who cried foul over the recruitment of farmers to sue Syngenta.

U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas Judge John W. Lungstrum ruled March 1 that the plaintiffs have failed to satisfy the constitutional requirement of standing and granted Watts' motion to dismiss.

Defendants were listed as San Antonio's Watts Guerra LLP, Mikal Watts and Francisco Guerra along with Lowe Eklund Wakefield of Cleveland.

Minnesota lawyer Douglas Nill sued Watts last year, claiming Watts misled Hennepin County, Minn., judge Laurie Miller, who presided over a class action for Minnesota farmers.

He wrote that Watts and his co-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 in his complaint.

The plaintiffs in Nill's suit argued that farmers were duped into signing a 40 percent contingency fee when they signed contracts with Watts to pursue legal action against Syngenta.

When it comes to proving standing, there are three requirements.  According to Lungstrum's ruling, the plaintiff must show that he or she “(1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the  challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision."

"The court will not simply take plaintiffs’ word for it in the face of those orders, which protect plaintiffs from the very types of harm that they have alleged in their complaint," Lungstrum wrote. "Accordingly, the court concludes that plaintiffs have failed to satisfy their constitutional burden to establish standing. The court therefore grants the pending motions and dismisses this action in its entirety."

The farmers claimed they could not partake in lawsuits against Syngenta in the federal multidistrict litigation proceeding in Kansas or in the 4th Judicial District Court in Minnesota. 

In 2018, a settlement worth $218 million was reached with Syngenta but had not been approved yet. Syngenta started facing legal action in 2014 when China refused to deal with corn shipments because it did not like the fact most of the seeds had been genetically modified.

The amended complaint stipulated there were two ways in which the plaintiffs were affected by the defendants’ conduct.

The ruling stated that the plaintiffs alleged they were harmed because "defendants effected the exclusion of their clients from the class actions, and plaintiffs were thus deprived of the opportunity to litigate their claims against Syngenta within a class action.

"Second, that exclusion meant that plaintiffs faced the likelihood of effectively paying attorney fees twice, once through the percentage of the common fund that would be awarded to class counsel and a second time through the fees that defendants would recover under the 40-percent contingent fee agreements plaintiffs signed," the ruling states.

The defendants argued "plaintiffs were not harmed by the exclusion from the initially certified litigation classes because no judgment was ever entered in favor of those classes."

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