Agriculture · Highlight

Court slows Resnick push to halt Assemis’ Tulare Co. pistachio plant

A push by the billionaire Stewart Resnick and the Wonderful Company to expedite legal process aiming to halt the expansion of a Tulare County-based pistachio plant owned by Fresno’s Assemi family has come up short.

Tuesday, Tulare County Superior Court Judge Bret Hillman issued a tentative ruling denying a motion, filed by the Wonderful Company, to enter judgment against the Assemis.

The lawsuit centers on a pistachio processing plant west of Terra Bella owned by ARO Pistachios, a subsidiary of the Assemi family’s Touchstone Pistachios.

The suit, filed in mid-July, alleges that Tulare County illegally issued the building permits to Touchstone – violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and its own code.

The Tulare County suit is a companion to a similar action waged in Fresno County, which alleged Touchstone violated CEQA in constructing a new pistachio plant in western Fresno County.

The Assemi Family and the County of Fresno settled that action with the family halting construction on that facility and undergoing further environmental review.

In his ruling, Hillman rejected the expedited nature of seeking an immediate judgment based solely on pleadings and a smattering of declarations.

“The court will be in a better position to assess the claims being asserted on each side after the record is settled, briefs are filed

Hillman added that the administrative process had not been completed, noting an administrative appeal waged by Wonderful in front of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors.

One week before Hillman’s tentative ruling was issued, Tulare County Supervisors heard the appeal and cast a unanimous vote to tentatively deny the Los Angeles conglomerate’s appeal.

The appeal before the Tulare County Supervisors is to be finalized on Sept. 15.

Hillman added that, given the appeal is not finalized, Wonderful had not exhausted all administrative remedies necessary to seek relief from the courts.

A spokesman for The Wonderful Company declined to comment on Tuesday’s proceedings.

The two sides are set to meet and confer to determine scheduling of filings and hearings. Their earliest return date to court would be Sept. 25.

The battles of of a Pistachio War

The Assemis and Wonderful Pistachios, Resnick and his wife Lynda, have been locked in legal strife since September 2019, when the Assemis filed a lawsuit claiming that Wonderful was withholding roughly $25 million in grower performance bonuses from the 2018 harvest year.

In 2018, the Assemis informed Stewart Resnick and Wonderful that they would end their 15-year relationship after the 2019 harvest.

In January 2019, Kevin Assemi, then-chief executive officer of the family’s Maricopa Orchards, met with Wonderful Company owner Stewart Resnick in Los Angeles.

“I am going to war with you,” Resnick purportedly told Assemi, per the suit. “I am going to do stuff to you that I would not do to other competitors because I have to make sure you are not successful with your plant.”

The Assemis’ suit characterizes Resnick as wanting to make an example of the Assemis for fellow growers.

“I am going to destroy you and make sure you fail so that no grower ever leaves and tries to make it on their own processing and marketing,” the suit alleges he said.

Last March, Wonderful hosted its 2019 growers convention at the Visalia Convention Center.

During a presentation, the suit states, Resnick announced that the Assemis would be exiting the cooperative and construct their own processing plant.

As to the Assemi family’s plans, the suit adds that Resnick told the assembled growers “he was going to ‘f*ck them.’”

As pistachio harvest revved up in late August, Wonderful’s chief of grower relations informed Kevin Assemi that the family’s operation would not receive what’s known in the Wonderful cooperative as a “Grower Partner Bonus” for its 2018 crop, despite contractual language entitling all of the Assemi suppliers that bonus, the suit states.

According to the suit, Wonderful claimed that payment of the grower bonus was “discretionary.”

With a 2019 crop valued at nearly $50 million, sources told The Sun that the Assemis various farming outfits delivered their pistachios to Los Angeles-headquartered Primex Farms.

Alex Tavlian
Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.