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Retired farmer files class-action suit against Monsanto

(Monday, Feb. 9, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Michael Shaw, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 02/05/04: Start with a simple soybean.

Add a gene that resists pesticide and a patent to protect the invention. Allow farmhands to sign their bosses' names to contracts accepting terms limiting reuse of the seed -- and you've got a potential forgery.

Patent? Forgery?

This is the complex world that retired Southern Illinois farmer Eugene Stratemeyer and his lawyer have entered with a lawsuit they hope will be a thorn in the side of Monsanto Co. of Creve Coeur.

The lawyer, Ron Osman of Marion, Ill., went to federal court in East St. Louis on Wednesday, hoping to certify a class-action suit against Monsanto over what even the company admits are some improperly signed contracts.

Osman and Stratemeyer lost a case to Monsanto in 2002, when a jury in the same court decided the farmer willfully violated the patent on the herbicide-resistant soybeans -- called Roundup Ready -- that dominate the marketplace.

Monsanto insists that under its agreement with buyers, the farmers must buy new seeds every season. The company has won millions of dollars suing farmers who harvested modified seed from the previous crop for reuse. Some have been blacklisted, with sellers told not to deal with them.

Stratemeyer, of Metropolis, Ill., lost only $14,000 in damages, a fraction of what some farmers have been ordered to pay. Monsanto wants that award tripled, and also is asking reimbursement of lawyers' fees.

Osman, a specialist in whistleblower cases who owns farmland in Illinois and Brazil, and Stratemeyer are striking back with the proposed class action.

It seeks to force Monsanto to go through thousands of its contracts to determine how many are "forged" -- meaning that someone signed the buyers' name without authority to do so. And it wants the court to order the company never to use such forged agreements against the farmers in any way.

The suit doesn't seek any money.

Monsanto lawyers admit that some of the contracts don't bear authentic signatures. The company says the forgeries were committed by retail suppliers of the seed, not Monsanto itself.

No one claims the contracts were forged with criminal intent. For example, farm hands who picked up seed may have signed the farmers' names for convenience, without thinking to get permission. On at least one of Stratemeyer's contracts, his last name was misspelled.

James Monafo, lawyer for Monsanto, said Wednesday that examining every signature would be costly and pointless.

"We're not using the contracts," he said. "It's not happening. It would be stupid to do so."

U.S. District Judge Michael J. Reagan will decide, perhaps next month, whether to certify the farmers as a class.

He quizzed both sides Wednesday, asking Monafo, "Wouldn't Monsanto want to know which (contracts) are valid and which ones aren't?"

Monafo replied, perhaps obliquely, that the company was out only to "protect the farmer."

Reagan also wondered about the value of the class-action suit, repeatedly asking Osman, "How is Mr. Stratemeyer harmed by any of this?"

Osman cited principle, saying there are reputations at stake.