Chris Berendt Staff Writer
October 13, 2013
Out-of-state plaintiffs’ attorneys, in an answer to a defense motion, said they have adhered to all N.C. laws and should not be barred from carrying out farm nuisance lawsuits against Murphy-Brown and Smithfield.
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.
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.
Farm nuisance 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.
Those have materialized into more than 20 civil suits, with Speer and Middleton named as attorneys.
“Unless permitted to withdraw sooner by order of the court, the attorney will continue to represent the client in the proceeding until its final determination,” each of the attorneys stated in separate filings, “and agrees to be subject to the orders and amenable to the disciplinary action and the civil jurisdiction of the General Court of Justice and the North Carolina State Bar in all respects as if the attorney were a regularly admitted and licensed member of the Bar of North Carolina in good standing.”
The motion includes 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. I am not aware of any motion for the pro hac vice admission of myself that was ever denied … (or) any pro hac vice admission that I was granted that was ever later revoked.”
A motion was filed last month in Wake County Superior Court by 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 Middleton and Speer firms, together with the Wallace and Graham firm, in engaging in “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.
Among several exhibits included in the defense motion, an affidavit from a female Bladen County resident states that a man who identified himself as representing the Middleton Law Firm approached her Clarkton residence in October 2012 saying he wanted to represent her in a legal action related to hog farms and solicited her signature on an agreement letter, indicating the lawsuit could result in a substantial monetary award based on the number of people signed up with him.
The female, in the affidavit, stated she did not have any issues with hog farms and never indicated to anyone she needed a lawyer for such matters.
Another female resident, who lives in the Pink Hill community of Duplin County, relayed a similar story of a person knocking on her door in July 2013. The person said she would represent the Pink Hill resident in a legal action related to hog farms, whereas the resident did not request or need such representation, she said in her affidavit.
A third local resident said he was approached by a stranger in June 2013 at the Hess convenience store in Kenansville.
Speer said he had no record or information of any attorney or other employee with the firm ever meeting with or speaking with the Clarkton woman, the Pink Hill woman, or the gentleman at a Hess convenience store in Kenansville. Speer said he and a paralegal were the only two people from Speer Law Firm to go to North Carolina, and their work was limited to the Wallace & Graham offices in Salisbury.
In an affidavit, Middleton said the Clarkton woman requested a meeting with his firm, and Harrison drove there to meet her. Upon meeting, she told Harrison she did not wish to pursue legislation, did not sign any documents and was never contacted again. The meeting was attended by the woman’s sister and her brother-in-law, who are now both clients, Middleton stated.
Middleton said no employee has been in contact with the Pink Hill woman, named in the affidavit, and Middleton was not in Kenansville around the specified days in June 2013.
“Regarding all other allegations raised by (defendants’) counsel … each of those allegations are completely false insofar as they apply to the affiant, this firm and/’or any of its employees, including all lawyers and legal assistants,” Middleton stated in an affidavit. “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.”
As litigation has commenced, plaintiff’s counsel have endeavored to have the clients sign superseding fee contracts with the Wallace & Graham firm and the Speer firm which comply with all North Carolina laws.
Speer echoed that.
“The first notice that (Speer) and his law firm had of the ethical issues purportedly raised in the affidavits attached to the defendants motion … came when (Speer) received the defendants’ motion,” the plaintiff motion stated.
Speer stated he was unaware of any complaint to the N.C. State Bar or the Missouri or Kansas State Bar by anyone else regarding those issues and had not received any communication to that effect.
“Neither I nor my law firm has engaged in the unauthorized practice of law in North Carolina,” Speer stated in court documents. “The law firm of Wallace and Graham, which is a North Carolina law firm, has actively assisted our law firm in preparing and drafting complaints and other pleadings, in meeting with and working with clients and potential clients, and otherwise with regard to the now-ongoing hog farm litigation in North Carolina which has left the investigation and entered the litigation phase,” Speer and Middleton stated in their affidavits.
The pro hac vice issue is set to be heard in Wake County Court on Oct. 15.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.