Thursday, November 17, 2011

Groups entitled to attorney fees

Biotech opponents could receive millions
By Mateusz Perkowski
Capital Press
November 17, 2011

Judge says groups entitled to recover attorney fees

A group of biotechnology opponents has been awarded $1.6 million for winning a court battle over USDA’s commercialization of genetically engineered alfalfa.

A federal judge has found Geertson Seed Farms and other opponents of the crop are entitled to recover attorney fees and other costs from the federal government.

The award is primarily based on years of legal work conducted by the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit that has opposed several biotech crops.

That group is also poised to win roughly $2.7 million in attorney fees and other costs due to its litigation over transgenic sugar beets.

The amount of these awards has been contentious — USDA argued biotech critics only won limited victories in both cases and were entitled to much less money.

With genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa, all restrictions on the glyphosate herbicide resistant crop were lifted by the agency in 2005.

Plaintiffs challenged that approval for allegedly violating federal environmental law.

In 2007, they convinced a federal judge to block further plantings of the crop until a comprehensive environmental study was complete.

The group’s success was curtailed last year by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found the judge’s injunction had gone too far.

According to the nation’s highest court, the judge shouldn’t have prevented the agency from partially deregulating the crop while it was undergoing review.

Even so, the Supreme Court upheld the judge’s decision to vacate the commercialization of Roundup Ready alfalfa. Farmers were still not free to plant the crop but the USDA could develop interim conditions under which new plantings could occur.

When the Center for Food Safety sought attorney fees as a prevailing party in that case, the USDA countered that the group had only achieved a limited degree of success and was entitled to about $800,000.

Although the group did not obtain a complete injunction against the crop, the “vacatur” of the USDA’s approval largely achieved the same result, according to U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer.

Because the difference between the plaintiffs’ goal and the actual result of the litigation was “minimal,” Breyer reduced their award by only 10 percent.

In the case of genetically engineered Roundup Ready sugar beets, USDA argued that the group was entitled to recover less than $700,000 in attorney fees and costs.

The agency said the victory was only partial because the Center for Food Safety did not win a full injunction against planting of the crop. Rather, the group won a “vacatur” that allowed USDA to partially deregulate it.

However, a U.S. magistrate judge has largely sided with the plaintiffs in that case, finding they achieved “excellent” results.

After making minor reductions related to billing, the judge recommended awarding the group about $2.7 million in attorney fees and costs — an amount that must still be approved by a federal judge.

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