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Recognition: Patricia Rynn, fighting the industry’s legal battles

When Patricia Rynn and the late Lew Janowsky launched their agricultural law practice more than 30 years ago, they set up shop not too far from the Pacific Ocean. That might have been in response to Rynn’s upbringing in Southern California’s not overly picturesque Inland Empire.

“My folks came to California from Toledo, OH. They stopped in San Bernardino and that’s where we were raised. We always figured they must have run out of gas,” quipped Rynn. “If they would have gone a little further, we could have grown up near the beach.”IMG 6140Pat Rynn with her daughter, Brenna.

That was just one of Rynn’s observations that she relayed to The Produce News recently as she eyed her pending retirement from the firm she co-founded 32 years ago. She said her Inland Empire experience was fairly ordinary, as was her initial college career at San Diego State University. After four years, she emerged with a master’s degree in public administration but no clear path to a future. Rynn thought about attending the University of Southern California School of Public Affairs and pursuing a career as a teacher, but instead entered the School of Law at the University of San Diego.  

“I learned so much. It was a really, really good experience,” she said of her legal education. “My classmates were so smart. It was amazing.”

Rynn passed the California Bar Exam in 1980 and began looking for opportunities to practice. “I didn’t want to leave San Diego, but at that time there was a large group of newly minted lawyers being unleashed on society in the San Diego area from several different law schools.”

The large number kicked in the economic theory of supply and demand, and as Rynn interviewed for jobs, she was amazed at how ridiculously low starting salaries were. She expanded her search northward and noted that the starting salary got higher and higher as she got closer to Los Angeles. A second interview for a city attorney position in Los Angeles put her in the thick of traffic and re-focused her search on Orange County.

“A fellow USD graduate, Geoff Gega, had just taken a position at Western Growers Association and said it was very interesting. They were doing a lot of work involving the UFW (United Farm Workers) and he said they needed lawyers.”

Rynn applied and was hired as part of a growing cadre of young attorneys sent out around the state to do battle with the UFW on behalf of the association’s grower members. “It was pretty exciting. I did a lot of travelling all over the state working on elections and dealing with boycotts and working on a lot of unfair labor practice cases with the A.L.R.B. (California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board),” she said.

Rynn also remembered spending quite a bit of time in El Centro, in California’s desert, on a trial that lasted six weeks. “I went to the mid-winter fair and watched a tractor-pull event that I didn’t quite understand,” she said. “The tractors were breaking down one by one with the last one standing winning the prize. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to ruin a perfectly good tractor. I felt like Charles Kuralt (who famously traveled the backroads of America in search of quirky slice-of-Americana stories).”IMG 6142Partners Lew Janowsky and Pat Rynn (seated) with other members of their firm.

Rynn remained with the Western Growers legal staff until 1986. It was during this time that the Trust Provision of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act came into being, largely through the efforts of former WG Chairman of the Board John Norton. Rynn recalled that Norton was a cattleman who simply wanted to apply a bankruptcy protection concept that covered cattleman to fruit and vegetable growers. Norton was successful and the WGA law practice took a new turn.

Rynn got more involved in PACA law, while fellow WGA staff attorney Janowsky spent most of his time on employment law, representing WGA members. She recalled that it “just felt like it was time to move on.”  

Rynn and Janowsky launched their firm backed by work from a couple of clients with which she was involved in fairly complicated cases. She would like to say that new clients came out of the woodwork and business took off, “But I do recall we had some months with very little work, and we also had some clients that were known for very slow pay.  Thankfully it worked out.”

Work involving the new PACA law was one reason why. “I just happened to be around when the PACA Trust amendments went into effect and Lew and I did our best to get the judges to recognize that the new law gave the unpaid produce suppliers super priority and first dibs on the debtor’s assets — ahead of banks and other secured lenders,” she said. “That was such a big change because before the amended PACA law, we couldn’t even get a debtor’s attorney in a bankruptcy case to return telephone calls. Amazingly, after the amendment took effect it was as if someone rolled out the red carpet for me when I walked into a bankruptcy court. It was quite a change. It was wonderful to be able to flex some ‘PACA muscle’ and to assure the counsel for the secured lender that we felt their client’s pain.”

Finding a niche
As their law firm grew, Janowsky continued to concentrate on employment law while Rynn became the firm’s PACA specialist. “We rolled up our sleeves and immersed ourselves in the PACA, not just the Trust but all aspects of it, including no pay and slow pay cases,” she said. “I got very good at writing demand letters.”

To this day, Rynn said she would much rather come to an equitable agreement between buyer and seller than take the case to court, which ends up costing everyone a lot of money. She noted that parties to a case often cite “principal” as their reason for not settling. “After getting a few bills from their lawyer, principal tends to go out the window. It’s usually better just to take a haircut and move on with your business,” she said.

Over the years, Rynn’s expertise has been well noted. She and other attorneys have traveled far and wide giving PACA seminars to employers and other non-agricultural attorneys. “Once we received a government grant to cover California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii,” she said. “It was like a roadie side show. We were definitely the backup band but we went all over the place.”

Rynn said many different trade associations would sponsor these seminars and she also had gigs as part of the California State Bar Agri-business Law subsection and a similar relationship with the American Bar Association. “It was great for business,” she said. “We received a lot of referrals from other lawyers and gave a lot of referrals. You get to know who’s who and who is an expert in each little niche.”

Rynn’s “little niche” clearly has been fruit and vegetable producers.  “It’s been a great 38 years,” she said as she pondered her upcoming retirement at the end of 2018. “I love the profession and I couldn’t have asked for a better career.”

She admitted that the passing of Janowsky in 2015, when he was only 64, weighed on her mind as she considered this next chapter in her life.

“Lew always said that he was going to spare no expense during his retirement,” she said. “He was always so excited about his retirement and then he got pancreatic cancer and was gone very quickly before he could enjoy it at all.”

Rynn has done work in the past with a non-profit that builds houses in Mexico and wants to do more of that. She also wants to spend more time with her mom and travel with her husband to more exotic places than where her work has taken her over the years. First trip on that list is a month in Prague next spring while her college-aged daughter spends a semester abroad in that city.  

Even in retirement, she is going to keep a hand in the work as a consultant for the firm and also plans to continue doing mediation and arbitration work for groups such as the industry’s multi-national Dispute Resolution Corp. Rynn & Janowsky will remain as a specialist in the fresh produce arena with her four current partners continuing to represent agricultural clients in PACA cases and their many other legal issues.