agriculture, Courts & the Law, Environment

Federal judge reduces damages in hog nuisance case — far below the total of $50 million

Hogs stand in feces and urine inside a barn at Kinlaw Farms in Bladen County. Last month, a federal jury awarded 10 neighbors of the farm a total of more than $50 million in damages against Murphy-Brown. A federal judge today reduced the total damages to $3.25 million. (Photos from court exhibits)

The 10 winning plaintiffs in a hog nuisance lawsuit won’t receive their $50 million in punitive damages  — $5 million each — against Murphy-Brown, as awarded by a jury. Instead, the total amount has been reduced to $2.5 million, just $250,000 apiece, according to a ruling handed down today by US District Court Judge Earl Britt.

Including compensatory damages for harm to their quality of life, the plaintiffs will each receive $325,000.

The first of dozens of hog nuisance lawsuits went to trial in federal court in April. After three weeks’ of proceedings, the jury ruled in favor of 10 Bladen County residents who live within a mile of Kinlaw Farms. The farm raises 15,000 hogs that are owned by Murphy-Brown, the world’s largest pork producer.

The jury had awarded each plaintiffs $75,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded when a jury determines a defendant, in this case, Murphy-Brown, committed fraud, or acted with malice or engaged in willful or wanton conduct.”

Whether the plaintiffs would receive the full and historic amount was in doubt almost immediately after the award was announced.

Murphy-Brown attorneys with McGuireWoods appealed the amount, based on a state law and subsequent Supreme Court case that limits punitive damages to “no more than three times  the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000 whichever is greater.”

The law capping punitive damages, passed in 1995 by the NC legislators, received wide support from the influential hog industry.

Attorneys at Wallace & Graham, who represented the plaintiffs, argued that a limitation on the amount of punitive damages is “unconstitutional as applied.” Specifically, they argued that in this case for private nuisance, the statute violates their right to a jury trial.

US District Court Judge Earl Britt agreed with the defendants.

Some states have ruled punitive damage caps as unconstitutional, but not North Carolina, Michelle Nowlin, an expert in agricultural and food law, told Policy Watch after the jury’s decision. And in other states, judges can uphold the jury’s award, as long as he or she determines the award is not “excessive.” In North Carolina, though, the judge does not have this discretion. Nor can juries be instructed about damage limitations before weighing their decision.

Murphy-Brown attorneys have said they also plan to take the case to the Fourth Circuit of Appeals.

The second hog nuisance trial begins with jury selection on Tuesday, May 29, in US District Court in Raleigh.

 

 

 

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy

Leading voices for civil rights to gather on May 15 in Durham for conference on NC’s broken criminal justice system

North Carolinians who care about civil rights and the desperate need to improve our flawed criminal justice system will not want to miss this event:

“Criminal Justice Debt: Punishing the Poor in North Carolina”

May 15, 9:30-2:30

Great Hall, NC Central University School of Law
640 Nelson St., Durham

Defendants in criminal cases are frequently caught in a web of fines and fees imposed at all stages of the criminal justice process. For poor defendants, these costs are often unpayable. Set up to fail and sanctioned with additional fees, extended probation, license revocation and–in violation of constitutional law–jail, individual defendants, and their families and communities, are driven deeper into crisis, even as they funnel millions of dollars into state coffers.

Please join us for this important discussion on ways to reform the criminal justice debt trap.

Cosponsored by ACLU of North Carolina, Forward Justice, North Carolina Advocates for Justice, North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, North Carolina Central University School of Law, North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System, North Carolina Justice Center, North Carolina Poverty Research Fund, North Carolina Public Defender Committee on Racial Equity, North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

The Conference is free and open to the public though registration is required.

Agenda and registration link: https://goo.gl/forms/XPcDWYU5riT24bPF3

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

McCrory Legal Defense Fund pays $25,000 to lawyers defending defamation suit

The McCrory Legal Defense Fund has paid at least $25,000 in attorneys fees thus far to a law firm defending a defamation suit involving voters who were falsely accused of election fraud.

The total was reported as an operating expense to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement in a recent political committee disclosure report. It was paid on Jan. 10 to Raleigh law firm Blanchard, Miller, Lewis & Isley, according to the report.

Philip Isley represents the McCrory Legal Defense Fund in a class-action lawsuit that was filed after the last gubernatorial election.

Fifty-three election protests claiming voter fraud were filed across the state in the wake of that election — most, if not all, by Republicans defending former Gov. Pat McCrory after he refused to concede the race to current Gov. Roy Cooper. The Republican-controlled State Board of Elections ultimately dismissed all the protests.

It was revealed after some of the protests were challenged that those Republicans were supplied information to file the protests by attorneys with the McCrory Legal Defense Fund, which had hired the Holtzman Vogel law firm in Virginia. Both the Defense Fund and the Vogel law firm are accused of conspiring to undermine the results of the election.

Isley was in court in April to try to have the lawsuit — which was filed by four retiree voters, three from Guilford County and one from Brunswick — dismissed.

The Defense Fund was established by the Pat McCrory Committee while the former Governor was still fighting his loss. North Carolinians were solicited for donations to help make sure all votes were counted in the election. The website is still up and appears to still take donations.

The Defense Fund also reported paying $2,400 in software fees to Aristotle, Inc., a company located in Washington D.C. that provides political technology and solutions to grassroots organizations, public affairs councils (PACs) and political campaigns in the United States and abroad.

Other expenses reported include more than $11,000 paid in taxes to the IRS and the North Carolina Department of Revenue. The group has $69,552.28 “cash on hand” for this reporting period and $83,732.44 total this election.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Guest columnist urges NC to stand with Forsyth judges in opposing judicial reform

A guest columnist in the Winston-Salem Journal last week encouraged North Carolina voters and their elected officials to stand together in opposing legislative attacks.

Linda Sutton was inspired by seeing five Forsyth County judges speak earlier this month at a “Fair Courts, Fair Votes” town hall in Winston-Salem.

The judges’ message was clear: our justice system exists so that everyone can rely on fair treatment from independent courts, but many in the legal community feel like that system is under attack.

[District Court] Judge [Gordon] Miller, a Republican and self-professed NRA member, told the packed room, “I’ve been practicing law for over 40 years … I don’t sit on the bench as a member of the NRA or a Republican, I sit there as a District Court judge … I disagree with the bills that have been proposed and I think they’re horrible ideas.”

Over the last few years, politicians in Raleigh have pushed an array of proposals to strip our courts of their independence by radically altering the way North Carolina chooses judges. They’ve made our judicial elections partisan, eliminated the 2018 judicial primary and floated plans to gerrymander the voting districts for our courts or eliminate judicial elections altogether.

Sutton said she was proud of the judges for standing together and speaking out, and said it was time for elected officials to follow their lead by passing a resolution to oppose legislative judicial attacks.

Several cities and counties across the state, including in conservative, rural areas, have passed resolutions opposing judicial reform. You can read more about that here and here.

Sutton wrote that passing such a resolution could “send a strong message to politicians in Raleigh that, like one Beaufort County commissioner put it, ‘you don’t know our county the way we do.'” She called on commissioners to act now. Read the full column here.

I’m calling on Forsyth County commissioners to act now. And I’m asking my fellow Forsyth County residents to ask them to do the same (we’ve made it easy to contact our commissioners about this issue at demnc.co/fairforsyth).

With only a few weeks until the N.C. legislature reconvenes to take up these changes, it’s time for Forsyth County to do what it can to fight back. This week our judges stood up for us. It’s time we did the same for them and the people that they serve.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Partisan gerrymandering plaintiffs ask U.S. Supreme Court to affirm lower ruling

The plaintiff’s in North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering case have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the lower court’s decision striking down a 2016 congressional map.

The high court denied an expedited briefing in the case but could still affirm the court’s decision and order fair maps to be drawn, according to a news release from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ).

The Campaign Legal Center (CLC), SCSJ and University of Chicago Professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos represent the plaintiffs in League of Women Voters of North Carolina v. Rucho. They jointly filed the brief on behalf of their clients, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and 12 individual North Carolina voters.

That case and Common Cause v. Rucho led to the partisan gerrymandering opinion from the lower court.

“The district court unanimously and correctly found that North Carolina lawmakers manipulated the state’s congressional voting maps to lock in their own political party’s power, with little regard for the will of voters,” said Paul Smith, vice president at CLC. “North Carolina has one of the most severely gerrymandered maps in modern American history. North Carolina voters have endured three election cycles with a skewed congressional map. The Supreme Court must affirm the lower court’s ruling, because even a single election under an unconstitutional map is one too many.”

Smith argued the partisan gerrymandering case out of Wisconsin, Gill v. Whitford, before the Supreme Court on October 3. There has not yet been an opinion handed down in that case, which is expected to set precedent.

Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for SCSJ said they are hopeful the high court recognizes the “glaring unconstitutionality” of North Carolina’s plan.

“The congressional maps drawn in North Carolina would be unconstitutional under virtually any meaningful legal standard the court adopts,” she said.

Evidence presented at the trial in 2017 showed that Republican legislative leaders used political data in drawing the 2016 congressional map to gain specific partisan advantage. You can read more about that here.