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Published May 16, 2011, 05:05 AM

Populist Vogel pulls back from firm lead

BISMARCK, N.D. — Some 41 years after entering legal profession, Sarah Vogel is getting “out of the frying pan,” as she puts it. As of May 15, the Sarah Vogel Law Partners law firm will have a new name — Baumstark Braaten P.C., named for partners Beth Baumstark and Derrick Braaten.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

BISMARCK, N.D. — Some 41 years after entering legal profession, Sarah Vogel is getting “out of the frying pan,” as she puts it. As of May 15, the Sarah Vogel Law Partners law firm will have a new name — Baumstark Braaten P.C., named for partners Beth Baumstark and Derrick Braaten.

Vogel, who turned 65 May 3, says she’s anxious for a different role. She’s moved from her bigger office in the historic Bismarck (N.D.) Tribune building in downtown Bismarck into a small office. She’ll remain “of counsel” to the firm that carried her name, but only selectively be involved in new cases.

Significantly, Vogel will finish work on the Keepseagle v. Vilsack case — a national class-action lawsuit started in 1999 in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture is paying discrimination settlement to American Indian farmers and ranchers.

“I’m not, per se, swearing off all litigation,” Vogel says.

Just a few days ago, she volunteered to work with Braaten on a case in which oil and gas companies have sued landowners for more than $50,000 for trespass, when the landowners simply were photographing spills that affect that affect lands in western North Dakota.

“I’ll have the opportunity to keep involved, but not have it be an impediment to all of the other things I want to do with my life,” Vogel says.

Getting started

Vogel was admitted to the bar in 1970. After a career in government law in Washington, she started a private practice in 1982 out of a “windowless, airless basement office” from which she was locked out for nonpayment. She says she moved to Grand Forks, N.D., where her father, Robert Vogel, gave her a job and let her live in the basement.

Her first major case was Coleman v. Block, a national class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which she won May 5, 1983. The case stopped foreclosures by the then-Farmers Home Administration and propelled her into a legal career.

She ran for North Dakota agriculture commissioner and served from 1989 to 1996. After deciding not to run for re-election, she returned to private practice with the Wheeler Wolf firm in Bismarck. In January 2005, she and law partner Beth Baumstark, a Carrington, N.D., native and University of Kentucky Law School graduate, started their own firm. From the start, they specialized in representing farmers and ranchers and also are known for representing surface and mineral owners in the oil fields, as well as wind power, coal and tribal issues.

Braaten, a University of Minnesota law graduate, joined the firm in 2007, when the firm was renamed Sarah Vogel Law Partners. He’ll take over the nameplate for her ag law columns in Agweek. Lindsey (O’Brien) Nieuwsma, originally from Grassy Butte, N.D., joined the firm in August. The firm is looking to add a full-time associate, as well as take on more clerks.

Recent cases

Among the recent notable the firm has pursued:

n Rudnick v. State Seed Department: A Minto, N.D., farmer purchased bad potato seed and sued the State Seed Department for failing to properly inspecting it. The case was settled out of court.

n Aageson v. U.S. Department of Agriculture: This is a Montana case where the firm got the 9th Circuit to rule in favor of awarding attorney fees to farmers appealing decisions by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the department’s National Appeals Division.

n Dakota Resources Council v. Stark County: Braaten represented the DRC appealed a zoning commission approval of the mine establishment. After the DRC won the appeals, the mining company prevailed in subsequent zoning attempts.

Braaten says it’s important to provide access to the legal system for everyone in society.

Farmers and others should consider getting legal advice any time they enter contracts, Baumstark says.

“It’s much less expensive if people contact attorneys early on in the process, rather than having to go through more extensive and expensive” processes, she says.

If a farmer wants to walk away from a grain delivery contract, for example, he or she should talk to a lawyer about how to appropriately cancel it. A lawyer can help demand performance, keeping the farmer from being on the wrong end of a breach-of-contract case.

“If you don’t follow those procedures, you may be at fault,” Vogel says.

Vogel is happy that her firm has pursued matters that are difficult and has not been intimidated by “big corporations, big governments . . . taking them on no matter how big they are.”

Vogel says the harder cases are those that involve farmer-vs.-farmer conflicts.

“It’s easier to go against a big corporation because you don’t feel sorry for them,” Vogel says. “You never feel sorry for an insurance company, a bank, or government. The lovely thing about the court system is that everyone is even in front of a judge — provided you can get them to a court, provided you can tell their story.”

Vogel says she’s anxious to have more time for her personal pursuits. In the near term, she’ll participate in a triathlon June 26 in Houston. She also wants to spend time with grandchildren, do some traveling and spend time on some family farmland she owns in North Dakota’s Mountrail County.

“It’s beautiful out there,” she says.

The land overlooks Lake Sakakawea and is all enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

“Technically, I’m a farmer,” Vogel says. “I’ve learned how to fix fence.”

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