Judge Denies Hickmans Pre-Trial Request To Keep Documents Confidential

Published: Friday, July 20, 2018 - 7:07pm
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Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
A street view of Hickmans Egg Farm in Tonopah.

Pre-trial proceedings for the case involving local egg producer Hickmans continue to inch along. A judge has decided Hickmans Egg Ranch can’t yet withhold documents as both sides gather evidence in a lawsuit saying the huge egg farm west of Phoenix is a nuisance.

Hickmans says they are operating legally in a rural area zoned for farming. Locals and businesses say building the farm in 2014 disrupted their community.

Lawyers argued in court Friday about whether the judge, Janice Crawford, would issue a partial judgment now on whether the Tonopah farm caused locals emotional distress.

Hickmans lawyer Larry Wulkan said in court that intentional emotional infliction would have to be proved as "outrageous."

"Building and operating a farm on land zoned for farming is not outrageous," Wulkan said.

The lawyer for the locals, Frank Verderame, countered that argument. He said Hickmans' 4-million-hen egg farm is more like an "industrial facility." And, that the zoning argument is a "red herring" to the public nuisance facts.

The judge ultimately denied the motion. 

"The mere fact that the facility is set up in accordance with zoning laws does not absolutely protect Hickmans from an allegation, or this type of claim," Judge Crawford said.

Another issue was whether Hickmans could get a broad protective order to keep information like truck driver logs and any future documents and depositions confidential.

Wulkan said Hickmans is asking to withhold 11 documents out of more than 5,000 already produced. 

"At one point in time, courts would put in protective orders like this. Those times have changed," Crawford said. "Judges have said 'wait, the person seeking protective order needs to release why it's necessary to prevent the public from having access to documents disclosed.'"

Wulkan did not present facts on why those 11 documents needed protection as proprietary information. 

Crawford denied that motion, without prejudice, and asked the two legal teams to come up with a solution on how to ask, in the future, for a document to be confidential in the lawsuit.

“It’s good that the courts are coming around, that the court should not be complicit in helping big corporate defendants hide information that is the public interest to know for their health and well-being,” Verderame said after the arguments.

Crawford will also decide whether Hickmans counter lawsuit, or declaratory action, of other Tonopah locals to try and stop future nuisance lawsuits can continue.

Wulkan said this claim was meant to stop future nuisance lawsuits if the judge ultimately issues a declaration. Verderame said it should be dismissed, because the reasoning behind the declaratory action is meant to have a chilling effect, and the judge agreed. 

"It does seem to me that's overreaching," Crawford said. "(Hickmans) may not be a nuisance today, under the facts, but it sounds like Hickmans is asking for declaratory relief because they're operating under legal zoning."

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