The federal judge overseeing the Roundup cancer litigation in Northern California threatened to sanction Monsanto if the agrochemical giant persists in “overbroad” efforts to keep documents relevant to the litigation out of public view.
A transcript from a recent hearing details Judge Vince Chhabria’s warning to Monsanto. Many of the documents the company has turned over in discovery will not be kept under seal, despite Monsanto’s efforts to keep them private.
“I have a problem with Monsanto because it’s – it is insisting that stuff be filed under seal that should not be filed under seal,” said Judge Chhabria in the hearing. He added that if documents are “relevant to the litigation, they shouldn’t be under seal, even if they are not – are embarrassing to Monsanto, you know, even if Monsanto doesn’t like what they say.”
Hundreds of people from all across the U.S. have filed lawsuits against Monsanto, alleging exposure to the company’s Roundup weed killer caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a report on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, finding the chemical to be a “probable human carcinogen.”
The lawsuits before Judge Chhabria have been consolidated into a multi-district litigation (MDL) in San Francisco. Other lawsuits making similar allegations have been filed in several other state courts as well. All in all, Roundup cancer attorneys anticipate thousands of people filing suit against Monsanto over the link between Roundup and cancer.
Judge Allows Plaintiffs’ Attorneys to Depose Monsanto Officials
In a related matter, Judge Chhabria also granted a request from plaintiffs’ attorneys to depose and obtain documents from Mark Martens, who was formerly employed by Monsanto in Belgium. Judge Chhabria granted the request despite objections from Monsanto.
A number of other Monsanto officials are also expected to be deposed in the coming weeks, including Dan Jenkins, Monsanto’s chief regulatory liaison who maintained regular contact with the EPA; and Susan Martino-Catt, Monsanto’s global supply chain strategy, and operations lead.
One person that plaintiffs’ attorneys are particularly interested in deposing is Jess Rowland, a former head of the EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC). In April 2016, a CARC report on glyphosate was leaked to the public on an EPA website, even though the agency said the report was unfinished. The report concluded that glyphosate was not likely to be carcinogenic.
The timing of the leak ended up being favorable to Monsanto, which touted the report on its website and on social media. At the time, Monsanto was trying to slow the advancement of the MDL litigation, convince the European Union to relicense glyphosate, and was suing California in an effort to keep the state from adding glyphosate to its Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer.
Jess Rowland, who was one of the main authors of the CARC report, left his job at EPA under mysterious circumstances – just a couple of days after the report was leaked. Roundup cancer attorneys have allegedly found evidence in discovery documents that shows collusion between Rowland and Monsanto, a charge that Monsanto denies. According to court filings, discovery documents suggest “that Mr. Rowland’s primary goal was to serve the interests of Monsanto.”
This isn’t the first time that the relationship between Monsanto and the EPA has been called into question. In 1985, the EPA classified glyphosate as a Group C chemical, determining that the chemical was possibly carcinogenic to humans. The classification was based on early animal studies, which showed an increased incidence of cancer in mice that were exposed to glyphosate.
In 1991, however, after intense lobbying by Monsanto, the EPA re-evaluated the animal data and re-classified glyphosate as a Group E chemical, indicating that there was no evidence that glyphosate causes cancer in humans. The EPA’s reclassification of glyphosate occurred shortly before Monsanto launched Roundup Ready seeds, which in combination with Roundup weed killer became a revenue generating combination that has netted billions for Monsanto.
Monsanto has made every effort to keep under seal internal documents turned over in discovery, including documents that allegedly reference Rowland, by maintaining that they contain trade secrets. According to Monsanto attorney Eric Lasker, the plaintiffs’ attorneys are attempting to make documents public to “try the case in litigation and the press.”
Nevertheless, Judge Chhabria said at a recent hearing that the documents related to Rowland, the EPA and IARC are relevant to the litigation and not appropriate for remaining under seal, so the documents could soon be made available in court filings.
According to Carey Gillam, contributor for the Huffington Post, the Plaintiffs’ attorneys have also subpoenaed Rowland to be deposed, despite objections from the EPA. Judge Chhabria has indicated that he favors allowing Rowland’s testimony, but he did give the EPA until March 28 to file a motion to quash Rowland’s deposition.