Roundup cancer attorney pleads guilty to extortion attempt

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A Virginia lawyer who helped represent the first Roundup cancer plaintiff to take Monsanto to trial pleaded guilty on Friday to trying to extort $200 million from a chemical compound supplier to Monsanto.

Timothy Litzenburg, 38, admitted to a scheme in which he and another lawyer threatened to inflict substantial “financial and reputational harm” on the supplier unless that company paid the two attorneys $200 million disguised as a “consulting agreement.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Litzenburg allegedly told the company that if they paid the money, he was willing to “take a dive” during a deposition, intentionally undermining the prospects for future plaintiffs to try to sue.

Litzenburg was charged with one count each of attempted extortion, conspiracy and transmission of interstate communications with intent to extort. He pleaded guilty to one count of transmitting interstate communications with the intent to extort.

Lawyer Daniel Kincheloe, 41, pleaded guilty to the same charge for participating in the scheme.  The men are scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 18 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.

“This is a case where two attorneys blew well past the line of aggressive advocacy and crossed deep into the territory of illegal extortion, in a brazen attempt to enrich themselves by extracting millions of dollars from a multinational company,” Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski said in a statement. He said that the plea shows that “when crimes are committed, members of the bar, like all members of the public, will be held accountable for their actions.”

Litzenburg was one of the attorneys for Dewayne “Lee” Johnson leading up to Johnson’s 2018 trial against Monsanto, which resulted in a $289 million jury award in Johnson’s favor. (The judge in the case lowered the verdict and the case is currently under appeal.)

The trial was the first of three that have taken place against Monsanto over allegations that the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Monsanto, and its German owner Bayer AG, have lost all three trials to date but are appealing the verdicts.

Though Litzenburg had helped prepare Johnson for trial, he was not allowed to participate during the actual event because of concerns about his behavior held by The Miller Firm, which was his employer at the time.

The Miller firm subsequently fired Litzenburg and filed a lawsuit in early 2019 alleging Litzenburg engaged in self-dealing, and “disloyal and erratic conduct.” Litzenburg responded with a counter-claim. The parties  negotiated a confidential settlement.

The criminal complaint against Litzenburg did not name the company Litzenburg tried to extort, but said that he contacted the company in September of  2019 year stating that he was preparing a lawsuit that would allege the company supplied chemical compounds used by Monsanto to create Roundup and that the company knew the ingredients were carcinogenic but had failed to warn the public.

According to the federal charges, Litzenburg told a lawyer for the company he was trying to extort that the company should enter into a “consulting arrangement” with him so as to create a  conflict of interest that would prevent him from filing the threatened litigation.

Litzenburg wrote in the email that the $200 million consulting agreement for himself and an associate was “a very reasonable price,” according to the criminal complaint.

Federal investigators recorded a phone call with Litzenburg discussing the $200 million he was seeking, the complaint states. Litzenburg was allegedly recorded as saying: “The way that I guess you guys will think about it and we’ve thought about it too is savings for your side. I don’t think if this gets filed and turns into mass tort, even if you guys win cases and drive value down… I don’t think there’s any way you get out of it for less than a billion dollars. And so, you know, to me, uh, this is a fire sale price that you guys should consider…”

Litzenburg claimed to be representing roughly 1,000 clients suing Monsanto over Roundup cancer causation allegations at the time of his arrest last year.

Appeals court hears arguments over Monsanto’s first Roundup trial loss

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A California jury decision blaming a Monsanto herbicide for a school groundskeeper’s cancer was deeply flawed and incompatible with the law, a Monsanto attorney told a panel of appellate judges on Tuesday.

The company’s glyphosate-based herbicides – popularly known as Roundup – have the full backing of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and “regulators around the world,” attorney David Axelrad told judges with the California Court of Appeal First Appellate District.

Axelrad said Monsanto had no duty to warn anyone about an alleged cancer risk given the regulatory consensus that its weed killers are safe.

It is “fundamentally unfair to hold Monsanto liable and punish it for a product label that accurately reflects not only EPA determination but a worldwide consensus that glyphosate is not carcinogenic,” he argued in the hour-long hearing. The proceeding was held by telephone because of COVID-19 restrictions on courthouse access.

Associate Justice Gabriel Sanchez questioned the validity of that argument:  “You have animal studies… mechanism studies, you have control case studies,” he said, addressing Monsanto’s attorney. “There are a  number of, it seems, published peer reviewed studies… that suggest a statistically significant relationship between glyphosate and lymphoma. So I don’t know that I would agree with you that it has unanimous consensus. Certainly the regulatory agencies seem to be on one side. But there is a lot of other evidence on the other. ”

The appeal stems from the 2018 jury decision in San Francisco Superior Court that ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million to Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, including $250 million in punitive damages.

The trial judge in the Johnson case lowered the award to $78.5 million. But Monsanto appealed the verdict, asking the court to either reverse the trial decision and enter a judgment for Monsanto or reverse and remand the case for a new trial or at least sharply reduce the damages.  Johnson cross-appealed seeking reinstatement of the full jury award.

Johnson is one of tens of thousands of people from around the United States who have sued Monsanto alleging Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides made by the company cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that the company spent decades covering up the risks.

Johnson gained “preference” status because doctors said his life expectancy was short and that he would likely die within 18 months of the trial. Johnson has confounded the doctors and remains alive and undergoing regular treatments.

Monsanto’s loss to Johnson marked the first of three Roundup trial losses for the company, which was acquired by Germany’s Bayer AG in June 2018 just as the Johnson trial started.

The jury in the Johnson case specifically found – among other things – that Monsanto was negligent in failing to warn Johnson of the cancer risk of its herbicides. But Monsanto argues that the verdict was flawed because of exclusion of key evidence and what the company’s attorneys call the “distortion of reliable science.”

If the appeals court does not order a new trial, Monsanto asked that the judges at least reduce the portion of the jury award for “future noneconomic damages” from $33 million to $1.5 million and to wipe out the punitive damages altogether.

Johnson’s trial attorneys had argued that he should get $1 million a year for pain and suffering over the 33 additional years that he would likely live if he had not gotten cancer.

But Monsanto’s attorneys have said Johnson should get only $1 million a year for pain and suffering during his actual life expectancy or $1.5 million for an 18-month expected future span.

On Tuesday, Axelrad reiterated that point: “Sure a plaintiff can recover during his lifetime for the pain and suffering that might be occasioned by knowing that he has a shortened life expectancy,” he told the judicial panel. “But you cannot recover for pain and suffering that is unlikely to occur in years where you will no longer be living and that is what the plaintiff received in this case.”

Axelrad told the justices that the company had been falsely painted as engaging in misconduct but in fact had properly followed the science and the law. He said, for example, though Johnson’s attorney had accused Monsanto of ghost-writing scientific papers, company scientists had only made “editorial suggestions” for several papers published in the scientific literature.

“Whether or not Monsanto could have been more forthcoming in identifying its involvement in those studies the bottom line is that those studies produced no false or misleading information and there is no indication that any of the authors of those studies would have changed their opinion had Monsanto not provided editorial comment,” he said.

Axelrad said there was no malice and no basis for punitive damages to be leveled against Monsanto. The company’s defense of its glyphosate-based herbicides over the years has been “entirely reasonable and in good faith,” he said.

“There is absolutely no evidence that Monsanto distributed false, misleading or incomplete information, no evidence that its actions prevented the dissemination of information to regulatory agencies needed to review the scientific evidence, no evidence that its actions compromised the ultimate regulatory decision making and no evidence that Monsanto refused to conduct a test or study in order to conceal information about a risk of harm or prevent the discovery of new information about the science of glyphosate,” he said.

Johnson attorney Mike Miller said that Monsanto’s lawyers were attempting to get the appellate court to retry the facts of the case, which is not its role.

“Monsanto misunderstands the appellate function. It is not to reweigh the facts. The facts that were just argued by Monsanto’s counsel were rejected thoroughly by the jury and rejected by the trial judge…” Miller said.

The appellate court should uphold the damages the jury awarded, including the punitive damages,  because Monsanto’s conduct surrounding the science and safety of its glyphosate herbicides was “egregious,” Miller said.

The evidence presented at the Johnson trial showed Monsanto engaged in the ghostwriting of scientific papers while it failed to adequately test its formulated glyphosate herbicides for carcinogenicity risks. The company then initiated “unprecedented” attacks on the credibility of  international cancer scientists who classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015, he told the judicial panel.

“In punitive damages, as you assess the reprehensibility of Monsanto you must factor in the wealth of Monsanto. And the award must be enough to sting,” said Miller. “Under California law unless it changes the conduct it hasn’t fit the purpose of punitive damages.”

The appellate panel has 90 days to issue a ruling.

UPDATED- St. Louis Trial over Monsanto Roundup Cancer Claims in Limbo

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(UPDATE) – On Sept. 12, the Missouri Supreme Court closed the case, agreeing with plaintiffs’ attorneys that Monsanto’s request for the high court to take up the venue issue was moot.   St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Mullen then transferred all plaintiffs except Winston to St. Louis County in a Sept. 13 order.)

An October trial pitting a group of cancer patients against Monsanto in the company’s former home state of Missouri is snared in a tangled web of actions that threaten to indefinitely postpone the case.

New court filings show that lawyers for both sides of Walter Winston, et al v. Monsanto have been engaging in a series of strategic moves that may now be backfiring on them leading up to the trial date of Oct. 15 date set by St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Mullen. Lawyers for the 14 plaintiffs named in the Winston lawsuit have been pushing to keep their case on track so they can present claims from the cancer victims to a St. Louis jury next month. But Monsanto lawyers have been working to delay the trial and disrupt the combination of plaintiffs.

The Winston lawsuit, filed in March of 2018, would be the first trial to take place in the St. Louis area. Before selling to the German company Bayer AG last year, Monsanto was based in the suburb of Creve Coeur and was one of the largest St. Louis area-based employers.  Roundup cancer trials that had been set for St. Louis area in August and September have both already been delayed until next year.

The plaintiffs in the Winston case are among more than 18,000 people in the United States suing Monsanto claiming that exposure to the company’s glyphosate-based herbicides caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that Monsanto hid the risks associated with its weed killers.

The back and forth battling over where and when the Winston trial may or may not take place began more than a year ago and has involved not only the local St. Louis court but also the appeals court in Missouri and the state Supreme Court.

In March of this year Monsanto filed a motion to sever and transfer 13 of the 14 plaintiffs in the Winston case from the St. Louis City Court to the Circuit Court for the County of St. Louis, where the company’s registered agent was located and where “venue is proper.”  The motion was denied. The company had filed a similar motion in 2018 but it also was denied.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers opposed such a severing and transfer earlier this year, but they have now changed that stance because amid all the maneuvering, Monsanto has been seeking intervention by the Missouri Supreme Court. The state’s high court ruled earlier this year in an unrelated case that it was not proper for plaintiffs located outside St. Louis City to join their cases to a city resident in order to obtain venue in St. Louis City. St. Louis City court has long been considered a favorable venue for plaintiffs in mass tort actions

Monsanto’s bid for intervention by the Missouri Supreme Court was rewarded on Sept. 3 when the Supreme Court issued a “preliminary writ of prohibition” allowing Walter Winston’s individual case to “proceed as scheduled” in St. Louis City Circuit Court. But the court said that the cases of the 13 other plaintiffs joined in Winston’s lawsuit could not proceed at this time as it considers how to handle the cases. The court ordered a freeze on any further actions by the St. Louis City Court, “until the further order of this Court.”

Fearing their case will be broken apart and/or delayed waiting for a Supreme Court decision on venue, the plaintiffs’ lawyers on Sept. 4 said they were withdrawing their opposition to Monsanto’s request for a transfer of the case to St. Louis County.

But now Monsanto no longer wants the case transferred given the Supreme Court’s action. In a filing last week the company said: “Plaintiffs fought venue at every opportunity, instead of agreeing to transfer their claims to St. Louis County and seeking a trial setting in that Court long ago. Rewarding the Winston Plaintiffs for this choice will only encourage further gamesmanship.”

On Monday, the plaintiffs’ attorneys filed a response arguing that the Winston plaintiffs should be transferred to St. Louis County as Monsanto had previously requested and that would make the venue issue before the court moot. They also argued that the judge in St. Louis City who has been presiding over the Winston case should continue to handle the case within the county court system.

“With the withdrawal of their opposition to Monsanto’s motion, Plaintiffs have consented to the very relief that Monsanto requests of this Court – transfer of the Winston plaintiffs to St. Louis County,” the plaintiffs’ filing states.  “The Winston plaintiffs’ case is trial ready. If the case is transferred to St. Louis County in short order, the Plaintiffs can begin trial on or close to the schedule currently in place.”

Whether or not a trial will still take place in mid October in St. Louis is still an open question.