Organic Entanglements: Costly Case with a Big Chill

*entanglementsAt a court hearing in Lincoln, Nebraska this week, a judge granted a continuance, again pushing back the date for resolving a controversial legal matter that is having an ongoing chilling impact upon US organic inspectors. The first case of its kind, it involves an organic farm inspector and a farm claiming to be organic.

The plaintiff claims the organic inspector conspired with the US government and the inspection company to prevent his business from having a valued organic certification.

Plaintiff farmer Paul A. Rosberg is suing organic inspector Evrett Lunquist (and International Certification Services, Inc.) for $7.6 million. Judge Paul D. Merritt of Lancaster County Court set March 20, 2013 as the date for a hearing on summary judgment of this entangled matter. A summary judgment could end the case without a full trial.

Judge Merritt had no choice but to grant the continuance and postpone. The plaintiff will be on trial in a criminal case scheduled to start January 28, and would likely be unable to appear in Merritt’s court on January 29 for the hearing that had been scheduled for that date. Rosberg’s criminal case involves federal grand jury indictments on six counts stemming from his alleged sale of non-inspected meat to the Omaha Public Schools.

Defendant Lunquist and attorney have filed motions requesting summary judgment dating back to May, 2012 and again in October.  But a steady flow of motions filed by Rosberg has kept the matter unsettled, and the meter running on Lunquist’s attorney. As the case drags on into its second year – and the severe drought gripping The Great Plains intensifies — Lunquist’s legal bills continue to mount. The latest entanglements in the case have driven the defense costs over $30,000.

My original story on this case, with background details, can be found here.

At the hearing in Lancaster County Court on January 15, the judge read off a numbingly long list of motions in the case, including Rosberg’s latest motions asking for sanctions on the defendant’s attorney, and for further delay in resolving his case against the inspector.

Rosberg, who represents himself pro se, has been involved in dozens of lawsuits over the past 28 years.  He said his impending federal case in Omaha will involve 70 witnesses. If the federal judge allows that many witnesses, that criminal case could drag on for weeks and thus Rosberg would be unavailable to press his latest lawsuits.

This $7.6 million lawsuit in Nebraska is sending a piercing legal chill through the nation’s network of organic inspectors. The case calls into question the willingness of the USDA and its National Organic Program (NOP) to stand behind inspectors.  After inspector Lunquist acted independently and notified NOP of his concerns, the NOP investigated and found that Rosberg’s operation indeed failed to qualify for organic certification. Lunquist’s complaint should have been kept confidential under NOP policy. But they inadvertently released his identity, leading directly to this lawsuit.

Although the NOP has provided a Declaration corroborating the accuracy of Lunquist’s original complaint, they have declined to help with Lunquist’s ballooning legal costs or to issue a public apology.

Judge Merritt granted plaintiff Rosberg a continuance until March 20, but said this was the last delay. In the interim, he allowed Rosberg to compel inspector Lunquist to provide further documentation, an action that will inevitably drive the defense legal bill even higher.

Lunquist, himself a Biodynamic CSA farmer with his wife and family at Common Good Farm, has established a website to keep people informed and to try and raise money to cover the cost of his legal defense

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AUTHOR’S DISCLOSURE: I serve on the board of Open Harvest Co-op in Lincoln, Nebraska. Common Good Farm is among 110+ local vendors that do business with our co-op. The coop has been helping to raise funds to cover the cost of Lunquist’s defense.

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