Westmoreland farmer files counterclaim against meat company

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BURLINGTON — A Westmoreland, N.H., farmer accused of defrauding a Massachusetts meat company says she is the victim and not the meat company.

According to a counterclaim filed on Monday in federal court, the suit filed against Suzanne Chickering is actually a "bad faith" attempt to avoid paying her $127,981.44 for 62 cattle and 37 hogs.

Earlier this year, attorneys for Walden Local, a meat company in North Billerica, Mass., filed suit against the Suzanne Chickering and her father Arthur Chickering III, alleging they bribed Jeffrey Nichols, an employee of the slaughterhouse in North Springfield, to falsify weight records. According to the suit, the Chickerings "conspired with" Nichols to falsify the records, which resulted in an overpayment of "at least $173,976 to Suzanne Chickering for the meat itself and $49,492 to VPH for the processing of the meat in 2017 and 2018."

Arion Thiboumery, the general manager of Vermont Packinghouse, told the Reformer last month that he had filed a complaint about the alleged fraud with the Springfield Police Department. But Windsor County State's Attorney David Cahill told the Reformer Tuesday he has not received any new cases regarding the Chickerings or Nichols.

Suzanne Chickering is an eighth-generation farmer who grew up on Chickering Farm in Westmoreland, wrote her attorney Ritchie Berger of Dinse in Burlington, "which has been in the Chickering family since Timothy Chickering, the family patriarch, moved to Westmoreland in the early 1760s."

Neither of the Chickerings have any connection to the Chickering Farm on Route 63 in Westmoreland, which is run by Arthur "Jim" Chickering.

"Ms. Chickering never bribed any Vermont Packinghouse employee, and is not aware of anyone else doing so allegedly on her behalf," wrote Berger.

Since 2016, he wrote, Suzanne Chickering sold "hundreds of animals each year" to Walden Local, which contracted with Vermont Packinghouse to slaughter, process and deliver the meat.

However, wrote Berger, "Vermont Packinghouse did not weigh and/or slaughter Ms. Chickering's animals immediately after receiving them. On one occasion, cattle from two different sellers — one of whom was Ms. Chickering — broke down a gate and mixed together. They were not re-sorted by Vermont Packinghouse before they were slaughtered ..."

Berger also noted that his client received payment from Walden Local "without any indication as to how much the animals she provided for sale to Walden had weighed, or any way to verify the accuracy of the amount Walden paid her for the meat it received from Vermont Packinghouse."

At some point during the business relationship, VPH began sending the weights to Suzanne Chickering, who invoiced Walden Local herself.

In 2018, Suzanne Chickering signed a new contract with Walden Local to supply beef and pork, with target weights and target amounts of animals of each type. While the terms of these agreements were occasionally modified through mutual agreement of the parties, wrote Berger, "Sometimes, however, Walden unilaterally changed the schedule for dropping off animals or the amount it was willing to accept at the last minute."

Berger also contended that Walden Local capped payments on overweight animals.

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"In February 2018, Walden offered to drop the cap for different price terms," he wrote. "Ms. Chickering declined to remove the cap and opted instead to keep the cap in place along with the other terms of their agreement. Nevertheless, some of Ms. Chickering's animals weighed in over the cap on many occasions. In total, Ms. Chickering was not paid for approximately 8,010 pounds of beef in 2018 due to this cap."

Because of this failure to pay, wrote Berger, his client had "no incentive" to conspire to increase beef weights.

Berger also alleged Vermont Packinghouse "had issues with its live scale as early as July 2018. Ms. Chickering does not know when, if ever, the issues were resolved."

MOTION FOR DISMISSAL

Attorneys for Arthur Chickering III filed a motion for dismissal on June 10, the same day Berger filed the counterclaim on behalf of Suzanne Chickering.

Stephen J. Soule, of Paul Frank + Collins in Burlington is representing Arthur Chickering III.

In the motion requesting dismissal, Soule wrote that the claims of fraud and civil conspiracy against his client are unsupported by the facts laid out in the suit filed by Walden Local. While Arthur Chickering III did deliver animals to VPH, wrote Soule, the contract was solely between Walden Local and his daughter.

"[Walden Local] relies on an abundance of unsupported speculation ... [which] serve[s] only to besmirch Mr. Chickering's reputation without a shred of supporting detail ..." wrote Soule. "The Complaint does not allege that Mr. Chickering was present for such weighing, had knowledge of such weighing, or had insight into — or oversight over — this process. Rather, Mr. Chickering simply transported the livestock to VPH."

Soule also noted the complaint filed by Walden Local in U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont has a number of "glaring deficiencies," including no mention of a time period the fraud was alleged to have happened, how many times it happened or the quantity by which the weights were purportedly altered

"[Walden Local] then states that Ms. Chickering 'knew' Mr. Chickering was 'bribing' Defendant Nichols, that VPH and Ms. Chickering purportedly invoiced Plaintiff based on the altered weights," wrote Soule. "[Walden Local] does not allege that Mr. Chickering ever made any representations of fact, much less that he ever reported the amount of meat sold or delivered to Plaintiff. Indeed, the Complaint does not even allege that Mr. Chickering saw or had knowledge of any 'reports' containing the amount of meat sold or reported to Plaintiff. To the contrary, the Complaint concedes that Mr. Chickering's responsibilities were limited to transporting livestock to VPH for slaughter and processing."

Walden Local's "theory," wrote Soule, is that the Chickerings and Nichols had an equal part in misreporting the amount of meat sold, but the complaint fails to state how Arthur Chickering III participated in that fraud.

"[Walden Local] does not allege, for example, where or when this 'bribe' occurred, the terms of the 'bribe,' how much the hang weights were altered by the 'bribe,' or how this 'bribe' subsequently affected any invoices," wrote Soule.

Walden Local also fails to note how it discovered the alleged bribes were taking place, wrote Soule, an allegation that is grounded in nothing other than Walden Local's "unadulterated conjecture. ... [Walden Local's] Complaint lacks any detail whatsoever that explains this allegation, and its mere use of the 'bribe' label cannot save this claim from dismissal."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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