An almond conglomerate that paid $4 million upon losing a civil trial is facing a second lawsuit brought by a witness in the first case.
Trinitas Partners, which helped launch a tidal wave of almond orchards east of Oakdale, broke a contract with longtime businessman Virgil Thompson and attempted to take advantage of the 83-year-old, the lawsuit says.
“In my opinion, they tried to bully an older gentleman, and they picked the wrong one,” said Thompson’s Stockton attorney, Michael Dyer. He also represented Trinitas’ opponent, Ben Hardister, in the first case.
The Modesto Bee was unable to reach Trinitas’ attorneys.
The Hardister trial provided a peek at motivating factors behind the startling conversion of low-value grazing land into seemingly endless rows of almond trees taking over the Valley’s east side. Hardister had paid $2,800 an acre and $3,300 an acre for two properties with a combined 1,269 acres and flipped them to Trinitas for $6,000 an acre. After the Oakdale Irrigation District agreed to deliver canal water to Trinitas’ total 7,200 acres, land values climbed to an estimated $10,000 an acre.
After a nine-week trial, jurors in December agreed that Trinitas had cheated Hardister. The company avoided a subsequent trial phase by settling with him for $4 million.
The new lawsuit says Thompson in 2009 made a deal to exchange land easements with Trinitas partners William Hooper, Ryon Paton and David Dias. Trinitas and Thompson own adjacent properties between Oakdale and Knights Ferry, measuring 900 acres and 1,000 acres, respectively. Both want to subdivide into 40-acre ranchettes, and mutual permission for road access would benefit all involved, the lawsuit says.
Thompson made good on his end of the signed contract with documents filed at the Stanislaus County clerk-recorder’s office.
Meanwhile, Thompson received a subpoena to testify in the Hardister case. With millions of dollars at stake, Trinitas tried to dissuade Thompson, Dyer said.
Paton sent Thompson an email “that says, ‘We’re going to have rethink our position (on the easement exchange), given your potential testimony,’ ” Dyer said. Thompson served as a witness despite the threat, Dyer said, and Trinitas reneged on the easement deal.
The lawsuit alleges that Trinitas “had no intention of performing on any promise.” The document accuses the company of breaching the contract, fraud and financial elder abuse because Thompson had “developed a high level of trust” in Trinitas and was vulnerable.
Court dates for the case are scheduled in September. The lawsuit names as defendants the three partners, as well as several limited liability corporations – TrinityFirst Almond Partners, TrinityFirst Almond Managers, TrinityFirst Investment Co. and Trinitas Farming.
Thompson is a retired banking executive who has served with a variety of service clubs and civic groups including the Oakdale Chamber of Commerce and Oak Valley Hospital Foundation. Both properties figuring in his lawsuit were acquired in 1918 by his wife’s family, who in 1949 sold off the portion now controlled by Trinitas, the lawsuit says.
Calculations suggest that Trinitas has invested far more than $100 million east of Oakdale. Others have joined the surge, boosting almond orchards throughout the county from 8,738 acres in 1982 to more than 160,000 acres. The National Agricultural Statistics Service predicts a record California harvest of 2.1 billion pounds this fall, triple the amount in 2000 of 703 million pounds. The current harvest could fetch $6 billion.
The surge has prompted widespread concern because many of the millions of new trees rely on groundwater, a resource that may be dwindling as pumps work overtime to keep crops alive in the drought. Shallow domestic wells have gone dry in rashes in areas of Denair, Ceres, Hughson and Valley Home, costing homeowners several thousands of dollars to drill new ones.
County leaders in June accepted 17 recommendations from a water advisory committee. The plan focuses on long-term sustainability rather than requiring well owners to provide helpful scientific data, and contains little on helping those hurt by inoperative wells.