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Judge reverses jury verdict in dispute between farmer and CEO

Phoenix, MD -- Stephen T. Pieper, owner of Hunter Mill Farms, stands near a field of his corn that was destroyed in a dispute with the landowner, David Smith, CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Phoenix, MD -- Stephen T. Pieper, owner of Hunter Mill Farms, stands near a field of his corn that was destroyed in a dispute with the landowner, David Smith, CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group.(Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

A Baltimore County circuit judge reversed a jury verdict that awarded $1.8 million in damages to a White Hall farmer embroiled in a long-simmering land lease dispute with the CEO of Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group.

After a seven-day trial in June, a jury found that farmer Stephen Pieper did not breach a lease on 95 acres he farmed in Monkton, part of a 235-acre parcel that Sinclair CEO David Smith bought in March 2013 through Corbett Farms II LLC.

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At issue was the interpretation of a five-year lease Pieper signed in 2011 with the prior owner. According to the jury's verdict, Smith unlawfully hired someone in July 2014 to plow under a corn crop Pieper planted and did so "willfully and with malice."

Smith and Corbett Farms asked the court to reverse the decision.

After a hearing on post-trial motions, Judge Susan Souder ruled Aug. 26 that the evidence does not support the jury's verdict. She vacated the verdict, ruling in favor of Corbett Farms' right to repossess the property, evict Pieper and "disk" the corn crop Pieper had planted.

Frank Laws, an attorney for Smith, said in a statement Tuesday that his client had plowed the crop back into the earth to restore nutrients to the soil on the advice of a soil conservation plan.

Contacted Tuesday, Pieper said the judge's decision "flies in the face of Maryland law."

Souder ruled that a landlord can breach a lease and evict a tenant and even destroy a tenant's property under some conditions. She compared Pieper's actions, including tearing down a fence to gain access to the property, to a residential tenant who breaks into a residence and leaves belongings inside after being evicted.

"A tenant can have no legal interest in property which he or she has placed on another's land as a trespasser, and a landlord is free to dispose of such property," Souder said in the order. "This corn was trespassorily placed by the Piepers onto land that did not belong to them and the Corbett parties' action in destroying it was not — as a matter of law — unreasonable."

During the post-trial hearing, according to Laws, Pieper's attorney said his client spent $474,000 in legal fees.

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"I am truly sorry that Mr. Pieper invested so heavily in this case, especially since I offered to pay him whatever he could have made farming the property to the end of the lease before any of this happened," Smith said in response, according to Laws. "I hope we can now put this all behind us."

Corbett Farms II had filed a lawsuit against Pieper in March 2013, saying the farmer breached the terms of the lease by failing to adequately treat the soil, prevent topsoil erosion or furnish soil samples for analysis. Pieper also blocked Smith from the land, padlocking the gate to the farm's only access road, according to the lawsuit, in which Smith accused Pieper of trespassing to plant the corn crop.

The jury found that Pieper did not trespass when he placed farming equipment on the nonleased portion of the property or in April 2014 when he planted the crop without Corbett Farms' consent and blocked the property's entrance.

Instead, on Pieper's counterclaim, the jury found that Corbett Farms breached the lease and awarded Pieper $33,060 for three years' worth of rent. In her decision, Souder reduced those damages to $22,040, for two year's worth of rent.

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