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From left, farmer Justin Hill, of Edgeley, N.D., Matthew Duesing, a legal assistant at Phipps Anderson Deacon LLP, San Antonio, Texas, Shelby Bartholomay of Progressive Ag Law, Fargo, Tim Erbele, a farmer from Streeter, N.D., and Matt J. Kretzer, of the Phipps firm, discuss the Syngenta corn case in an informal meeting at the Fireside Steakhouse & Lounge in Ellendale, N.D., on Feb. 21, 2017. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

Texas law firm hosts updates on corn lawsuit

ELLENDALE, N.D. — Law firms are making one last sweep to gather in clients to participate in individual lawsuits in historic actions against Syngenta. The suits allege farmers are owed reparation for billions in lost markets because the company allegedly improperly released genetics into the marketplace before it was approved in key foreign export markets, including China.

Teams of legal assistants for Phipps Anderson Deacon LLP of San Antonio, Texas, are in the midst of a series of meetings in corn states offering an update for farmers enrolled as plaintiffs on the Syngenta legal case.

The claimed losses are due to corn exports that were rejected by China since November 2013, because Syngenta introduced a trait called MIR162 corn seed that wasn't yet accepted there and couldn't be filtered out of U.S. shipments.

Matt J. Kretzer and Matthew W. Duesing hosted a meeting at the Fireside Steakhouse & Lounge in Ellendale, N.D., where only two existing clients arrived for a meeting, held against the backdrop of girls' basketball tournament action on the televisions in the bar. The purpose is to "update our clients on the status of the case and to recruit new clients as well," Kretzer told them.

Kretzer and Duesing were among five teams of two representatives each that are fanning out across the corn states, ahead of an April 1 deadline for farmers to file an individual case or be a part of the class action case in Kansas City.

Two showed

Since Oct. 29, 2015, Phipps and local associates have filed individual claims against Syngenta in Monroe, Ill. All of the suits are based on the same premise, that Syngenta jumped the gun by commercially releasing the GMO trait into the American seed corn market before it was accepted by China.

Farmers are suing for the lost money on the corn they grew and for the corn they might have grown.

The Phipps firm says it has about 13,000 clients in 30 states. The most clients, about 2,500 to 3,000, are in Iowa which is the nation's biggest corn producer. They say North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota each have "roughly" 600 clients. They said the firm has added some clients in the past year but couldn't say how many.

One purported advantage of joining the Phipps action is that it treats plaintiffs individually, rather than all the same in a class action suit, Kretzer said.

"We believe farmers have individual operations and that no two farms are alike," he said. Exact reparation levels won't be known until the case gets before a court.

Shelby Bartholomay, a legal assistant at Progressive Ag Law of Fargo, attended the Ellendale meeting but did not speak. PAL is headed by Ray Grabanski, who is president of two Fargo-based companies — Progressive Ag Marketing and Progressive Ag Systems. Grabanski completed a law degree in 2013 and in September 2015, he incorporated PAL to be a “local liaison” for the national firms, led by Lee Murphy Law Firm in Houston and the Phipps firm in San Antonio.

Local liaison

Grabanski made news a year ago when he took his promotions of the lawsuit and his advocacy to the Commodity Classic trade show in New Orleans. Grabanski attempted to enlist famed North Dakota lawyer Sarah Vogel in the effort and hosted a concert by Hank Williams, Jr. Grabanski also offered support to farmers who he said were unfairly compensated in the federal Agriculture Risk Coverage-County program. The Classic temporarily cancelled his company's booth and rooms, but later reinstated them.

This year's Commodity Classic is in San Antonio, which is the hometown of the Phipps law firm, but Kretzer said that won't be a "route to recruit any new clients." Grabanski has since declined comment on the legal efforts and has referred questions to the Texas lawyers, who have declined comment.

Kretzer and Duesing were limited in their comments and mostly repeated the underlying theory of the case that is available on the law firm's website. Kretzer indicated he thinks the case isn't being "discussed at the volume it should be."

Similarly, Tim Erbele of Streeter, a client in the case, said he’s shocked that there isn't more interest "considering the financial losses incurred." The two noted that some experts had projected China would become the largest importer of U.S. corn but since 2013 has not imported any U.S. corn.

The case is a contingency case, meaning a farmer signs up for free and the firm isn't paid unless they pay check to the farmer. Kretzer says the firm does much of the work in gathering records — Farm Service Agency forms, production and marketing histories — to qualify.

The Phipps firm also held meetings in Henry, Webster and Bristol, S.D., Gwinner, Wahpeton, Fargo, Casselton, Valley City, Grand Forks, Hunter and Cooperstown, N.D. 

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