Unsealed Documents In Nunes' Family Farm's Lawsuit Against Ryan Lizza Raise More Questions About The Lawsuit Than They Answer

from the you-did-what-now? dept

The saga of Devin Nunes' family's lawsuit against reporter Ryan Lizza and Esquire Magazine got even more bizarre last week. Back in June, we had written about some heavily redacted documents in the case that suggested that Nunes' lawyer, Steven Biss, was playing some very dangerous games in order to try to keep the employees of the NuStar Farms (owned by Nunes' relatives) from testifying as to their immigration status. As you may recall, the only part of the lawsuit that was still going on were defamation claims regarding the implication that the farm might employ undocumented workers, which would be noteworthy, considering Devin Nunes hardline stance on immigration.

As we covered back in June, after first making it difficult to set up a deposition with the employees, when that deposition finally occurred, the lawyer for the employee recommended he take the 5th, at which point Biss (who was not representing the employee) paused the deposition for quite some time, before insisting that the employee would not take the 5th. From the filing:

Defendants noticed the depositions of six of Plaintiffs’ current employees and had them served with subpoenas duces tecum that required them to bring identification to their depositions. Plaintiffs’ counsel, Steven S. Biss, accepted service of the subpoenas on behalf of the employees, but Plaintiffs arranged for separate counsel, Justin Allen, to represent the deponents. F.S.D. was the first such witness to be deposed on May 12, 2021.

While Defendants’ counsel was questioning F.S.D. about his purported signature on various documents, Mr. Allen stated, “I’ve advised my client to invoke his Fifth Amendment right regarding questions about this document. [F.S.D.] --- ” (Doc. 103-8 at 20 (Dep. pp. 71-72).) Mr. Biss then interrupted stating, “Hold on. Hold on. Can we go off the record for just a minute? I’d like to talk to Justin before we do this.” (Id. (Dep. p. 72).) In fact, the deposition was delayed for much more than just a minute. More than two hours later, the deposition resumed. When Defendants’ counsel attempted to make record, Mr. Biss interrupted him several times insisting that Mr. Allen would make a statement and the deposition would be rescheduled. Once Mr. Biss got his way, Mr. Allen stated,

I am not going to allow [F.S.D.] to answer that question because when we left it I advised him to invoke his Fifth Amendment right. We took a break. We went off the record, and we’ve had several conversations with lots of people and I’ve talked to [F.S.D.], and as of now I am no longer representing him. I am not his lawyer.

(Id. at 21 (Dep. pp. 74-75).) The depositions were then halted. At the hearing, Mr. Biss stated that a new lawyer had been retained to represent the employee witnesses at their depositions, but he could only identify the new attorney by her first name, Jennifer. Mr. Biss was ordered to provide her name to opposing counsel and the Court. To date, I have not received that information.

Still, much of the information remained redacted. Law professor Eugene Volokh filed a brief asking the court to unseal some of the documents in the case, and late last week the court agreed. So now we get to see a lot more, and as Elizabeth Dye at Above the Law points out, the new details show that this lawsuit "is even grosser than expected."

The newly unredacted documents highlight the evidence Hearst has found, through the discovery process that at the very least strongly calls into question the immigration status of employees of NuStar Farms. Considering that's the only issue left in the case, it seems quite incredible that the farm and Nunes' family would continue to push this lawsuit -- though, as other recent filings have shown, it's unclear how much Nunes' family actually knows about the lawsuit that was filed in their name. A failed deposition redaction notes that family members admitted to not knowing who was paying for the lawsuit, and that they weren't looking for any money in return (even though the lawsuit requests $25 million).

According to the filing:

In addition, Plaintiffs’ apparent lack of investment in prosecuting their own lawsuit was buttressed by their deposition testimony admitting they have not incurred out-of-pocket payments to counsel, with the exception paying $500 to former local counsel Joe Feller, and their document production of financial records indicating the same lack of payments to counsel for costs or fees, save the payment to Feller. Consider further that Plaintiff Anthony Nunes III, testifying as the 30(b)(6) corporate representative of NuStar, answered the question “[W]ho is funding the lawyers for this lawsuit?” with “I have no idea.” NuStar 30(b)(6) Anthony Nunes III Dep. 400:8-10.

Also, this:

Plaintiffs have had little involvement in the prosecution of their own case. See NuStar 30(b)(6) Corporate Rep. Tr. at 10:9-15:18 (corporate representative testifying that he never saw the 30(b)(6) topics and did not prepare); Lori Nunes Tr. at 185:3-22 (testifying that she did not review SSA records ordered to be produced to Plaintiffs); Anthony Nunes, III Tr. at 303:8- 308:11 (same); Anthony Nunes, Jr. Tr. at 97:13-100:15 (same); Lori Nunes Tr. at 117:23-124:9 (testifying that she did not know where information in interrogatory response came from but suspecting it came from counsel); see also Toni Dian Nunes Tr. at 86:10-89:17, 112:25-116:6 (testifying that she never saw subpoena directed to her and accepted by Plaintiffs’ counsel and that some records produced in response were not actually hers).

And yet the case pushes forward on the issue of the immigration status of the employees of the farm, and the formerly redacted, but now unsealed, bits of Esquire's filing are incredibly eye opening and would make most people question why this lawsuit is being fought in the first place. From the now unsealed filing:

To defend against those allegations, Defendants obtained in discovery from NuStar records concerning its hiring of workers. These include (i) USCIS Forms I-9 and accompanying employee identification cards for most current and former employees, and (ii) two "No-Match letters issued to NuStar by the U.S. Social Security Administration ("SSA")... Defendants also obtained from the SSA, pursuant to this Court's order... a chart indicating whether or not the Social Security Numbers ("SSNs") that the workers provided to NuStar matched the SSA's records...

Those documents demonstrate that the six subpoenaed NuStar employees—who were employed by NuStar before, during, and after the article was published, according to NuStar's verified response to Interrogatory No. 1, could have criminal exposure under 8 U.S.C. §1324c, and that their testimony may incriminate them. What follows is a small sampling of the reasons.

First, the SSA responded that the Social Security numbers reported by NuStar as associated with each of the subpoenaed employees does not match the SSA's records.... This authoritative, self-authenticating document from the United States Government confirms that the SSA has no record of having issued to these workers the SSNs that NuStar recorded at the time of hire.

Second—and consistent with this—NuStar received letters from the SSA in 2019 (for tax year 2018) and 2020 (for tax year 2019) notifying them that the majority of SSNs provided on their employees’ Forms W-2 did not match the government’s records. That is, in 2018, 20 out of 27 employees came back as a “no match,” and in 2019, 14 of 19 came back as a “no match.”... Those letters stated that NuStar could use a free online portal to learn which employees’ numbers did not match, and to thereafter follow up with the respective employees to correct the errors on the W-2 forms.... This is important if the employees are here legally, as otherwise the SSA will not be able to accurately account for their Social Security benefits. Tellingly, Plaintiffs did not produce any documents indicating they had done so.

Third, the Forms I-9, social security cards, and identification documents are, in many instances, insufficient and/or fraudulent on their face. This was on stark display in the (yet-completed) deposition of [REDACTED], the first NuStar employee to testify.

As AboveTheLaw notes correctly, having a No Match letter does not mean that an employee is an undocumented immigrant. But, it certainly raises some questions about their documentation. And, if the Nunes family's main concern about the Lizza article was it suggesting the farm might have employed undocumented workers (which, to be clear, the article never actually says -- it merely highlights how the industry relies on undocumented workers, and it is quite common for such undocumented workers to be employed on farms around the Nunes' farm), perhaps the dumbest move Nunes and family could make is to sue for defamation over those very claims. Because unlike an old Esquire article that doesn't actually accuse the farm of hiring such workers, now (1) it's definitely in the news again, and (2) there's more evidence coming, and what's been shown so far does not look good at all.

Indeed, the filing goes even deeper in raising serious questions about the documentation status of NuStar's employees.

On his I-9, bearing a date in 2007, [REDACTED] stated that he was a United States citizen.... However, before his attorney (from the Brown Winick firm in Des Moines, who met his client for the first time that day) advised him to invoke his Fifth Amendment right, [REDACTED] testified that he was not a United States citizen and, instead, was and is a legal permanent resident holding a government-issued green card.... This, of course, suggests [REDACTED] made a false statement under penalty of perjury on his Form I-9.

Moreover, Section 2 of the Form I-9 is not filled out by the employer, and the signature on the Form I-9 does not appear to match the signature on the produced 2017 Form W-4 for [REDACTED] .... This raises questions as to how [REDACTED], who does not read English, was able to complete the form without assistance, and whether someone at NuStar completed it for him without disclosing that fact as required on the form itself. These are questions Defendants’ counsel intended to explore, until [REDACTED] counsel from the Brown Winick firm instructed his client to assert his Fifth Amendment right....

Most significantly: The resident alien card that [REDACTED] proffered to NuStar in order to gain employment is, on its face, fraudulent. [REDACTED] proffered card states that his class of admission to the United States is “W16.” ... “W16” is limited to persons who entered the United States without inspection prior to January 1, 1982, and were subsequently granted legal permanent resident status. See Dep’t of Homeland Security, Immigrant Classes of Admission, https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/lawful-permanent-residents/ImmigrantCOA (last visited May 15, 2021); ... However, date of birth, as stated on his proffered card and as he testified, is [REDACTED].... It is impossible for [REDACTED] to have been granted permanent resident status under the W16 class of admission, as he was born almost three years after the cut off for that class.

If the entire case hinges entirely on whether or not Lizza had no basis to believe that the farm employed undocumented workers, this is... probably not the way to make that case.

Also unsealed was Steven Biss's response to this filing, claiming that none of the above matters:

The fact that the social security numbers reported by NuStar did not match the SSA’s records is irrelevant. Inclusion of a worker’s name on a no- match letter makes no statement about the worker’s immigration status. Mismatches can result from a variety of reasons, including typographical errors (misspellings), clerical errors, mis-transposition of a number, an incomplete W-4, mistakes by the SSA, name changes, fraud/identity theft.

There's also a lot of table pounding about how (1) the article is false and quotes were "fabricated" by Lizza, (2) that none of the documents suggest the employees are undocumented or face criminal exposure, (3) that the only "misconduct" was from Lizza and Hearst, and (4) all of this is intended to "harass" the plaintiffs. You can read the filing for yourself at the link above or embedded below, but to me they are wholly unconvincing. The filing also insists that (1) Biss and NuStar are not pressuring its employees to not take the 5th, and also that (2) they "will not assert the Fifth Amendment or refuse to answer any questions." That seems quite odd given that the one transcript that has been released certainly showed the then lawyer of the employee suggesting the employee assert his 5th Amendment rights.

Esquire and Lizza then responded with the now unsealed document suggesting that the court really ought to appoint "competent, independent counsel" to represent the employees of NuStar farms.

Eventually the court mostly sided with Hearst and Lizza, noting that there was no harassment here:

During the deposition, Defendants’ counsel was asking questions about documents such as a bond F.S.D. had posted and a traffic ticket he had received that bore his signature. Mr. Biss made a lengthy speaking objection claiming this was harassment.... Here, where the identity and immigration status of the employees is a central issue, it is not harassing or irrelevant to ask questions about such documents. In the context of this case, it is not conducive to obtaining truthful answers from an employee such as F.S.D. to have his employer’s lawyer making lengthy, animated objections to those questions

Similarly, the magistrate judge seemed at least somewhat concerned about Biss's actions:

The most puzzling and troubling aspect of Mr. Biss’s explanation, however, is the representation that he “sought a sidebar with counsel for the witness to determine whether the witness wanted to take the Fifth Amendment.” (Doc. 107 at 10.) This two-hour “sidebar” occurred immediately after Mr. Allen stated, “I’ve advised my client to invoke his Fifth Amendment right regarding questions about this document.” (Doc. 103-8 at 20 (Dep. pp. 71-72).) Normally, one would expect the lawyer for a deponent to be in the best position to ascertain whether the deponent desires to assert a privilege. There is no record of the sidebar, only Mr. Biss’s protestations that the employees are not being pressured regarding their rights under the Fifth Amendment. Mr. Biss makes bald assurances that the employees want to answer all questions and not assert their Fifth Amendment rights. Nevertheless, Mr. Biss’s behavior—coupled with the facts that (a) the privilege was raised, (b) the privilege was perhaps withdrawn after a lengthy sidebar, and (c) Mr. Allen was fired—gives me little confidence that F.S.D. could make a knowing waiver of his Fifth Amendment rights under these circumstances.

The court, however, initially declined to appoint a lawyer for the employees, because Biss insisted that one had already been found for them, though he could not name her beyond "Jennifer." The hearing transcript is quite incredible on this:

THE COURT: However, I understand that in this circumstance, that Mr. Biss, or perhaps it's the Nuneses, have arranged to have another lawyer or lawyers appear on behalf of these witnesses. Is that the case, Mr. Biss?

MR. BISS: Yes, sir, it is.

THE COURT: All right. Who is it that you've arranged to have appear?

MR. BISS: I know her name is Jennifer. I don't know her full name, but I was involved in engaging her; but NuStar engaged her, so she -- and she is available.

THE COURT: What do you mean that she is available? For us to talk to now or just available for any of these depositions?

MR. BISS: She's available for the depositions, whenever they are scheduled.

THE COURT: Okay. I'd like you to figure out who that person is and notify the Court and notify opposing counsel of that today. I know you expressed some concern that whoever would be designated to represent these defendants would be -- I don't know if you used the word "harassed," but I don't -- encouraged to assert their Fifth Amendment rights, and I don't think there's -- I'm not worried about Iowa lawyers who are admitted to the bar being able to vigorously assert their clients' rights. I think if I were in Jennifer's position and someone who knew a lot more about the underlying case -- whether it was you, Mr. Biss, or someone from the defendants who knew more about the underlying documents and the potential jeopardy my clients might face -- was calling me to talk to me about that, I'm not sure I would consider that harassment. It might be somewhat welcome so that I can accurately -- I mean, effectively defend my clients in their depositions. So that's not a worry that I have.

Again, all of this is not how these things normally work, and it remains somewhat bizarre that Nunes' family is still moving forward with this case.

It's unclear what happened with "Jennifer" but a few weeks later, in early July, the court reversed course and appointed counsel to the employees:

On June 17, 2021, I entered an order declining to appoint counsel for six of Plaintiffs employees who are witnesses. Because of the distinct possibility that these witnesses may not comprehend the jeopardy they may face and because they may not be able to afford counsel, I conclude it is necessary to appoint counsel from the CJA panel for the witnesses. Therefore, I appoint John P. Greer of Greer Law Office in Spencer, Iowa to represent the employee witnesses. The prior order at 119 remains unmodified in all other respects. This Order appointing counsel is subject to Plaintiffs employees satisfying the Court of their qualifications for court-appointed counsel under 18 U.S.C. Section 3006A.

This case is certainly quite messy, but it remains difficult to see any way in which this case makes sense for the Nunes' family beyond as a harassment technique itself. It continues to retain all the hallmarks of a SLAPP suit, and serves as a strong reminder that Iowa needs an anti-SLAPP law and we need a federal anti-SLAPP law to go with it as well.

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Filed Under: anti-slapp, defamation, devin nunes, immigration, immigration status, ryan lizza, slapp, steven biss
Companies: hearst, nustar


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  1. identicon
    Rocky, 22 Sep 2021 @ 9:52am

    Even the cows must eating popcorn at this point...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    James Burkhardt (profile), 22 Sep 2021 @ 10:18am

    When the plaintiffs testify they do not know who is paying for the case, that should be an immediate dismissal unless that information can be provided (under seal) to the court and council. The funding implies a party without standing is funding the case, and while legal, it potentially means a party whose interests do not necessarily align with the plaintiffs is paying for.

    Given Plaintiffs testify documents have been submitted that are false or misattributed to the plaintiff, whomever is paying for this case is probably directing the prosecution of the suit and appears to be operating against the best interests of the plaintiffs. This is furthered by Biss' attempts to prevent workers from taking the fifth on the questions of documents that prove they can legally work (taking the fifth tanks the case because it can legally be assumed by the court the reason the fifth was taken in a civil case, known as an adverse inference, but taking the fifth may be the best decision for the workers as individuals)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Sep 2021 @ 10:30am

    Did Biss accuse the employees of fraud and identity theft as a defense argument?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Aaron Walkhouse (profile), 22 Sep 2021 @ 11:22am

    ; ]

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    MightyMetricBatman, 22 Sep 2021 @ 12:51pm

    Re:

    The cows are moooving faster this lawsuit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    David, 22 Sep 2021 @ 1:03pm

    Re:

    It wasn't a defense argument. It was more like "your honor, we all know the employees are working illegally here but I'll stop them from taking the Fifth so that you can pretend you didn't notice, ok? My unnamed financial donors will certainly be appreciative, and look how good they are at staying unnamed, and look how much money they have at their disposal!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    DB (profile), 22 Sep 2021 @ 1:35pm

    My Canadian Girlfriend "Jennifer"...

    Yeah, she is super a member of the Iowa bar. And totally really exists.

    We can't know the actual voice inflection from just the transcript, but it's pretty clear from the number of times the judge and attorneys said 'Jennifer' that there was a credibility gap.

    I'm sure that Biss desperately spent the rest of the day looking for an attorney that was named Jennifer, or even one that would say that he went by the name Jennifer on stage.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    David, 22 Sep 2021 @ 2:04pm

    Re: My Canadian Girlfriend "Jennifer"...

    Turned out that his smooth-arguing bar acquaintance who introduced themselves as "Hi, I am Jennifer. But you can call me Jenny." was actually going by the name of Lucy. For short.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Bobvious, 22 Sep 2021 @ 2:49pm

    Re: Re: My Canadian Girlfriend "Jennifer"...

    You mean you found Lucy? Fer real?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 22 Sep 2021 @ 2:56pm

    Someone shouldn't have protested too much

    No wonder they wanted to keep everything buried they are just looking worse and worse the more of this is revealed. The family has no idea who's funding the entire thing, what was just a general claim('the industry uses undocumented workers') was claimed to be specific defamation and it's looking like there might be good reason for Nunes to be so touchy about that subject, Biss is left scrambling to name a lawyer that is supposedly working with him...

    This may be a SLAPP suit but it's looking more and more like a pyrrhic one where in the attempt to squash speech they don't like Nunes and Biss are exposing way more than they thought they would.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Bobvious, 22 Sep 2021 @ 3:02pm

    Re: I'll take "the 5th" for $500 Alex

    It's not like the employees could be coached relentlessly on how to respond, because they all have secure legal employment and couldn't possibly be threatened with deportation for "reasons".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Bobvious, 22 Sep 2021 @ 3:05pm

    Re: Someone shouldn't have protested too much

    exposing way more than they thought they would.

    Excuse me ma'am, your SLAPP is showing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    David, 22 Sep 2021 @ 3:46pm

    Re: Someone shouldn't have protested too much

    Well, I for one certainly enjoy their idiosyncratic attempts at making SLAPP stick.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    JMT (profile), 22 Sep 2021 @ 8:19pm

    "This may be a SLAPP suit but it's looking more and more like a pyrrhic one..."

    Technically it'd need to be a victory to be considered Pyrrhic, and that doesn't look likely, legally or otherwise.

    In the meantime he's throwing the family's employees under the bus. Throwing a tanty over a broad and indirect accusation could result in multiple deportations, something that probably barely registers in Nunes' conscience.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 22 Sep 2021 @ 9:43pm

    Re:

    That's the biggest problem with SLAPP suits though, you don't actually need to win legally in order to accomplish the goal you just need to be willing and able to spend more than the other side, so he could lose every single bit of the legal side of the fight and still be able to count it as a 'win' if the process drives the other side into the ground first.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Pixelation, 22 Sep 2021 @ 10:30pm

    Pleading the 5th says it all...

    Old McNunes had a farm, E-I-E-I-O. And on that farm were undocumented workers, E-I-E-I-O. With a lawsuit here and a lawsuit there, E-I-E-I-O. Here a cow, there a cow, everywhere a cow, cow.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    David, 23 Sep 2021 @ 2:15am

    Re:

    When the plaintiffs testify they do not know who is paying for the case, that should be an immediate dismissal unless that information can be provided (under seal) to the court and council.

    Actually, I find that to be the perfect justification to award triple costs to the defendant: there is nobody who could complain about it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Sep 2021 @ 4:01am

    "we don't know who is funding this"

    so it could be ISIS or Putin or Xi? Mr Nunes has some serious 'splaining to do as its quite illegal to take funds from terrorist organisations/governments.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Sep 2021 @ 4:57am

    Re:

    Isn't the point that it's basically illegal for him to take funds from almost anyone?

    Rarely has "following the money" been more important.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    nasch (profile), 23 Sep 2021 @ 9:17am

    Re:

    taking the fifth tanks the case because it can legally be assumed by the court the reason the fifth was taken in a civil case, known as an adverse inference

    They can't just assume whatever they want though:

    'In federal civil litigation, however, an adverse inference may be “drawn when independent evidence exists of the fact to which the party refuses to answer”'.

    https://www.lanepowell.com/Our-Insights/221205/Taking-the-Fifth-in-a-Civil-Context

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. icon
    Tanner Andrews (profile), 25 Sep 2021 @ 2:10am

    Re:

    taking the fifth tanks the case because it can legally be assumed by the court the reason the fifth was taken in a civil case

    Not exactly. We can draw inferrences, perhaps, but remember that this is the employees asserting the privilege for themselves rather than the corp or even a corporate rep asserting the privilege. Any inferrence would be against the employee, not the plaintiff.

    Still, it looks bad.

    If a plaintiff asserts the privilege, then there will be an adverse inferrence. However, that is not the case here. Indeed, it would be difficult for this plaintiff, Nu Star Farms, to assert the privilege because it is not a natural person.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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