Poultry workers' $85 mln antitrust deal ready for judge's approval

A truck laden with chicken leg quarters leaves Sanderson Farms poultry processing plant enroute to Mexico, in Palestine, Texas, U.S., January 17, 2018. Photo taken January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lange
  • Maryland judge asked to approve settlement with Cargill, others
  • Defendants denied wrongdoing in reaching accords

(Reuters) - A class of current and former poultry workers who alleged major U.S. chicken processors conspired to suppress wages has asked a Maryland federal court to approve $84.8 million in new settlements, pushing the total recovery so far in the litigation to more than $134 million.

The plaintiffs' attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Stephanie Gallagher on Friday to grant preliminary approval of a settlement resolving civil antitrust claims against Sanderson Farms Inc, Wayne Farms LLC and Cargill Meat Solutions Corp, three of the largest U.S. poultry processors.

Sanderson, based in Laurel, Mississippi, agreed to $38.3 million, and Wayne Farms, based in Oakwood, Georgia, said it would pay $31.5 million to resolve allegations. Minneapolis-based Cargill agreed to pay $15 million.

The companies denied any wrongdoing as part of the settlements.

Lawyers for the private class plaintiffs at law firms Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll on Monday did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Cargill in a statement said, "we are pleased to put the cost and distraction of litigation behind us."

Defense attorneys and representatives from Sanderson and Wayne did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The preliminary approval push comes after the U.S. Justice Department in a separate federal settlement in July with the three defendants who said they would pay restitution to poultry workers in the pending private class action.

The U.S. in its lawsuit alleged a scheme in which chicken processors shared wage and benefits information to curb competition. The defendants agreed to the imposition of a 10-year compliance monitor.

In the private case, the plaintiffs' lawyers in their court filing said "these settlements are beyond fair; they are an excellent result for the class."

The poultry workers' lawyers said "continuing to litigate this case against settling defendants would have required significant additional resources and materially increased the complexity of the case."

The settlements "secured extensive cooperation obligations" that "will materially strengthen" the plaintiffs' claims against remaining defendants, the class attorneys said.

Perdue Farms Inc, among the non-settling defendants, declined to comment on Monday. A representative from Tyson Foods Inc, also among the defendants, did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

The plaintiffs' attorneys did not identify any amount in legal fees they planned to seek and said any application for compensation would be considered apart from the workers' settlement.

The case is Jien v. Perdue Farms Inc, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, No. 1:19-cv-02521.

For plaintiffs: Shana Scarlett of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro; Brent Johnson of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll; and George Farah of Handley Farah & Anderson

For Sanderson Farms: Daniel Laytin of Kirkland & Ellis; and Joseph Hovermill of Miles & Stockbridge

For Cargill: Julie McEvoy of Jones Day; and Faris Rashid and Davida McGhee of Greene Espel

For Wayne Farms: Christopher Ondeck of Proskauer Rose

(NOTE: This article was updated with comment from Cargill.)

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U.S. settles claims against poultry producers over worker treatment

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