A couple from Aroostook County who lost their potato seed farm in a long legal fight with Agway Inc. won a $1.1 million jury verdict against high-profile Portland attorney Daniel Lilley and his law firm last week after a five-day civil trial in Portland.
Vaughn and Mary Sleeper of Island Falls hired Lilley’s firm in 2001 to represent them and their business, Sleeper Hill Farms, against the New York-based agricultural conglomerate in a case in which they claimed Agway withheld money from them.
Ten years later, the Sleepers sued Lilley, accusing him and members of his law office of failing to represent them properly after Agway filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, and through the years of federal court and arbitration proceedings that followed. For example, the Sleepers claimed the firm failed to adequately conduct discovery, including deposing key witnesses and obtaining key evidence, failed to convey settlement offers and failed to keep the clients apprised of the case status.
The case pitted the farmers against one of Maine’s most prominent attorneys, whose criminal defense work and outspoken style have brought him media attention over the years.
Lilley gained notoriety most recently in 2012 and 2013 in what was known widely as the “Zumba prostitution case.” He defended Mark Strong Sr., the Thomaston businessman who was implicated in the prostitution business that was run from a Zumba studio in Kennebunk.
Strong and Alexis Wright, a former Zumba instructor, were convicted this year on misdemeanor charges in the case, which drew international headlines.
Lilley, who was first admitted to the Maine bar in 1967, is representing Merrill Kimball, 70, in this year’s shooting death of Leon Kelley, 63, at a bee farm in North Yarmouth after tension escalated between the families involved in the farm.
Also this year, Lilley’s firm defended businessmen Vincent and Robert Maietta of South Portland, helping to get perjury charges against the brothers dismissed.
On Friday, a jury in Cumberland County Superior Court returned a 6-3 verdict against Lilley and in favor of the Sleepers, after a trial that started Dec. 16.
The Sleepers’ attorney, Lee Bals, said his clients were driven out of business by Agway after Agway made false claims that the Sleepers were selling genetically contaminated potato seeds in 1999 and 2000.
Bals said the Sleepers hired Lilley to recoup their losses from Agway, only to have Lilley “abandon their claim.”
After the verdict, Bals said his clients felt “completely vindicated because they always knew they had been really wronged by Agway.”
“They lost everything. … They had a farm that was in the Sleeper family for four generations,” Bals said. “They always knew they had a valid claim.”
On Monday, Lilley said, “My reaction to (the verdict) is utter surprise.”
He said he didn’t abandon the Sleepers, but won them a $128,000 award in their claim against Agway.
“I won the case for the Sleeper folks,” said Lilley, who represented the couple with another attorney from his firm, Christian Foster. “They didn’t think that was enough, so they sued me personally.”
Lilley, who was represented during the civil trial by Edward MacColl, an attorney from outside his firm, said they are now filing new arguments, seeking to contest the verdict.
“I am cautiously optimistic that the court will throw the case out or reduce the amount,” Lilley said. “We’re in the process of filing motions to say there was no evidence to support such a verdict.”
MacColl did not return a phone call seeking comment Monday.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @scottddolan