Throughout the debate over HB 467, the arguments proffered by state Rep. Jimmy Dixon and other supporters centered on “hardworking farm families” besieged by “frivolous lawsuits” filed by greedy, out-of-state attorneys.
“You do know that the original lawyers were banned from North Carolina,” Dixon said, while shrugging off the plaintiffs’ claims about the stench associated with hog farms as “exaggerations.”
Mark Anderson, an attorney representing Murphy-Brown LLC, brought up the same point in an email: “You should know that the original claims were filed by out-of-state lawyers who went door to door, actively recruiting plaintiffs and promising them large sums of money if they joined the lawsuits. The lawyers’ conduct led to them being thrown out of the cases because of ethics violations.”
The out-of-state-lawyers claim is a go-to for the bill’s champions, and for good reason: It’s entirely accurate.
The Salisbury-based Wallace & Graham is now handling the plaintiffs’ 26 federal nuisance lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, but that wasn’t always the case. The suits were initially filed in Wake County Superior Court in 2013 by two out-of-state firms, whose lawyers recruited clients in North Carolina without a state license and signed hundreds of clients to contracts requiring them to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for work performed on their behalf, even if the attorneys decided to drop the case, as the News & Observer previously reported.
In hearings, Judge Donald Stephens admonished the firms for their behavior and, after the contracts were rewritten, required that they partner with a North Carolina firm, which ended up being Wallace & Graham. About two months after the firms teamed up, Wallace & Graham’s attorneys told Stephens they could no longer work with the out-of-towners. Stephens then took away the out-of-state lawyers’ privilege to practice in his court and said he didn’t “ever want to see them again or hear from them again.”
Wallace & Graham refiled the lawsuits in federal court, but the behavior of the attorneys booted from the case has left its mark, giving the industry’s defenders ammunition with which to accuse the Murphy-Brown plaintiffs or their attorneys of cupidity.
In a statement, Smithfield Foods called the lawsuits a “cash grab.” At a House committee meeting in April, Dixon accused the plaintiffs’ current lawyers of manipulating their clients: “When the final chapter is written on these cases, we’ll see the people being represented are being prostituted for money.”
In a statement, Wallace & Graham said that, “until the trial is over, we choose to make no further comment on the cases.”