Taking the Hard Road: A Conversation with Mona Lisa Wallace (JD '79, P '08)

Scott Schang, director of the Wake Forest Environmental Law Clinic, and Mona Lisa Wallace (JD ’79), partner at Wallace & Graham, P.A., sat down for an interview on August 9, 2022 to talk about Wallace’s own story and her experiences in environmental justice litigation. They discussed her current case interests as well as her high profile lawsuit against the pork industry in North Carolina that was chronicled in the book Wastelands by Corban Addison.

Schang: How did you end up at Wake Forest Law? Was law something that was in your family? Did you expect to be a lawyer when you were younger?

Wallace: I wanted to be a lawyer from the sixth grade on. I would’ve never had another career, and it was simply because I grew up kind of on the wrong side of the tracks, and I felt like there was not an equal playing field for some people versus others. That kind of background really gave me a passion for helping others have equal rights regardless of their background, or their race, or their gender.

Schang: So a really strong sense of justice.

Wallace: I think so, from day one. I really am positive. I learned it in a very small town on a playing field with primarily underprivileged children.

Schang: What was it like to be here at Wake Forest Law in 1979? There must not have been that many women around you in the class.

Wallace: So, in 1979, there were few women in the class, and I went out and became a trial lawyer in the early 1980s. And seriously, you can only imagine back then, in the south, in a small town, how difficult it was. I would say that in my first 10 to 15 years of being in court almost every day, I can count probably on two hands the number of times that I had an opposing female attorney as compared to generally an older judge and an older lawyer on the other side. All male, by the way.

Schang: How did you adapt to that and make your way through that?

Wallace: Being one of the first women in the south as a trial lawyer, I just got tired of people not giving me the respect I felt like I should get. So I think I just worked harder, tried harder, and it was a good thing in a way, because it made me a better lawyer.

Schang: How did you end up going from Wake Forest, one of the few females in the profession, to being at a law firm in Salisbury?

Wallace: When I graduated in 1979, I had a very hard time getting a job in a small southern town. But there was a kind gentleman—who was actually a part-time minister–named Graham Carlton, who hired me and gave me the opportunity. After a few years, I opened my own law firm and I’ve now practiced—I hate to say the number, 40 years—and I’ve been involved in all types of law, and I’ve primarily had the ability to choose what cases I wanted. That’s been a real joy in life, to be able to choose what you want to do and to actually be successful at it.

Schang: How do you choose your cases? That has to be fairly hard. You’ve done a wide variety of cases. You were super successful in asbestos litigation, a leading litigator. You’ve done environmental cases, healthcare cases. What makes a case that you want to take on?

Wallace: I want to take cases that other lawyers won’t take. For example, I was involved in shutting down payday lending and getting rid of mandatory arbitration clauses that people had no chance to disagree with. They either had to take the offer or not get whatever they were purchasing. And, for example, asbestos. My father was in the Navy. He was on a war ship in World War II, and he had asbestosis. Right now, I’m highly involved in Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg with two of the biggest class actions for military housing. My son-in-law was a ranger in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So the cases that I generally take, all of them stem from something that moves me personally. They are cases that speak to my heart and that the odds are generally very high. I feel like I really help people. And fortunately I’ve been financially successful despite the fact I never chose a case for the potential financial outcome of it.

Schang: You have to basically finance a case in the way your model works, correct? So you have to be able to really stand behind the case and move it forward.

Wallace: In my 40 years of being an attorney, other than domestic cases early on in my career, if I lost the case, I didn’t get any money at all, and I advanced all costs. So it was always risky. And these are still the cases we take today.

Schang: It takes a certain kind of person to be able to do that. You mentioned Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg. Can you explain a little bit what those cases are about?

Wallace: We’re really doing three different military cases right now. First, Congress passed a 15 billion dollar bill to compensate individuals, their family members, and workers who were at Camp Lejeune, the Marine base. From 1953 until 1987, the water that they were drinking, the swimming pools their children were swimming in, were highly contaminated with very, very bad carcinogens. I started out in 1981 as one of the first lawyers in the state that did cancer litigation. So that obviously was something that I very much wanted to do.

We have two housing class actions, one on behalf of Fort Bragg, and another on behalf of Camp Lejeune. These cases are due to the poor quality of the housing the military has in North Carolina. Back in the nineties, the military base housing—not the barracks, but the general housing for families or others who were not the barracks—was sold to private interests. So there has been a significant deterioration for military families in where they’ve had to live, and that’s wrong under anyone’s sense of justice. They give the most for us, and that should not be so.

Schang: And what are some of the other cases you’re working on right now? What are the main things you’re focused on?

Wallace: I am extremely concerned about North Carolina and the cost of medical care and prescription drugs. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it, but I’ve been partners with the same gentleman, Bill Graham, who is a great partner, for over 30 years. And the other partner is my daughter, Whitney Wallace Williams. We’re all very, very close, so I’m privileged for the firm.

But we’ve taken on the issue of monopolies controlling medical care in North Carolina with anti-competitive practices. We have a lawsuit on behalf of 14 counties and western North Carolina consumers, because when Hospital Corporation of America purchased Mission hospital, according to our complaint, the quality of care went down significantly, and the cost of medical care escalated. If you look at the news about that, a lot of the doctors left and the nurses unionized, which is unusual to see in North Carolina.

We also have a national lawsuit in Tennessee against a company that provides a very significant portion of emergency room care for billing issues. And, most of all, I’m very passionate about nursing homes. A lot of them have been sold to and are being supported by private equity money, and the quality of care has gone down, so that’s also a very big concern.

I’m doing a lot in the healthcare arena, which is surprising, because I’ve never done it before, to be quite honest. But we have very, very good co-counsel and it is an issue. I read the other day that every person in North Carolina who’s buying insurance works almost one day a week just to pay for their insurance costs, and it just shouldn’t be like that.

Schang: And healthcare is the leading cause of bankruptcy in our country, which is just unusual. Most Europeans hear that and they don’t understand, because they have single pay health care systems. So I’m glad you’re taking that on as well.

I’m glad you mentioned Wallace and Graham. It’s a law firm that punches way above its weight. If you read about it, if you look at the website, it looks like a family firm—both people who are members of the family and people who work there who aren’t members of the family. It sounds like they’re members of the family, anyway. What is it like to work like that?

Wallace: It’s wonderful. It’s a small firm and a small town. Well, it’s a big firm in a small town, let me put it that way. I’ve been married for 45 years to a wonderful person who was from Salisbury, and I was from there, so I will never leave. It’s incredible to be able to practice with family and friends in a small town and be able to attack both social and legal issues that are meaningful. I couldn’t ask for a better career.

Schang: You’ve had quite an impact outside your practice as well. You’re quite the philanthropist.

Wallace: I’m particularly interested in healthcare and cancer, so we have the Wallace Cancer Institute which came about because my son-in-law’s father had cancer. Think about driving to big cities from a small southern town every day for chemotherapy or infusions. We’re very interested in medical care, the cost of medical care, and education, both public and private.

Wastelands: Taking the Hard Road

Schang: As an environmental lawyer, the way I came to know Wallace & Graham was through the Smithfield confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) cases. Tell us a little bit about what those were like and how you managed to pull off such an amazing victory.

Wallace: I don’t know any other way to say it, but those cases were about feces and urine. Eastern North Carolina is one of the largest hog producers in the country, and it was owned by Smithfield. At the time that we brought the lawsuit, Smithfield did own it, but it was subsequently sold to a Chinese conglomerate. We brought the lawsuits because the hog waste—five times or so more than the waste than humans—would go underneath the barns of the hog operations and into an open air lagoon, and a number of these lagoons were unlined, which caused all kinds of problems for neighborhoods in eastern North Carolina.

These people had been trying for 20 years or more to find a lawyer to take on the industry, but the agricultural industry in North Carolina, I would say, is probably the most powerful and connected with legislative lobbying. So when we brought the lawsuits, it was a David versus Goliath story. Over the last four years, I lived away from my family for two years, one year in Wilmington, off and on, doing depositions and another in Raleigh for five back to back federal trials.

I will say, while we didn’t achieve as many environmental objectives as I would’ve liked, there have been changes made that I would hope would be due to the fact that we were generally successful in that litigation and encouraged Smithfield and others in the industry to improve their agricultural practices. The farmers themselves have very little, if any, say on how their waste is disposed of. They’re under contract with the big producers, so they have very little say.

Schang: That’s one of the fascinating things to me about the way you structured the lawsuit, because you did not sue the farmers. The company owned the hogs and gave them to the farmer. Then they instructed the farmer how to raise the hogs, how to treat them, how to manage the waste, and then took them when they were done, leaving all the risk on the farmer. So you left the farmer out of the lawsuit, which I imagine had a big impact on the jury.

Wallace: We didn’t sue any of the farmers in any of the federal cases. In fact, we were sympathetic throughout for the farmers because of the take-it-or-leave-it contracts they’re given. They are required to dispose of the waste, and yet they have very little say in the whole process, what hogs they get, what feed they’re fed, the veterinarians, when the trucks come. So it really was the big corporation who made the decisions.

Schang: In the book Wastelands, you mention the role of the media and the public. I’m curious about your perspective on what role the media plays.

Wallace: During the trials, our firm, regardless of how horribly we were bashed in the news and media—which was daily—we chose not to try our case before the media, but to try it in the courtroom. It was only after the fifth federal trial that I was asked to comment about what really occurred. I shared this story with an extremely good writer [Corban Addison], it’s a true story, and he has documented everything in the book.

But, the media should not have a place in the middle of ongoing trials. Unfortunately, in those cases, it did, and it did to the point where the jurors couldn’t even leave because of the rallies that were going on or the traffic. Very serious issues were created by the media and the press during those trials—in the newspapers, on TV, and elsewhere.

Schang: We should probably mention that in Eastern North Carolina, these large hog operations tend to be located in predominantly African American and poor neighborhoods, and that’s probably not by chance that that happened.

Wallace: Our typical trial involved the kindest, most wonderful people in the world whose families had owned the land for decades, if not generations. Then the hog farms were put at the end of their streets or around the corner back in the woods. Many of them contested it, but because of who they were, almost all African American, it never mattered.

When counties came in and tried to zone against hog farms or hog factories being placed in these counties, they were sued. For 20 or 30 years, legislators tried to help them. They couldn’t. Church people tried to help them, leaders—particularly African American, people in the North Carolina House of Representatives like Cindy Watson, and a lot of other hog farmers stepped in. In fact, we represented a white hog farmer, Don Webb who was at every trial. And we had a current hog farmer testify for us that he became aware of how bad this situation was for his neighbors, so he took environmental steps to improve the quality of the air and waste in his facility.
It was a very hard-fought and difficult case to handle that truly took about five years of my life from my family.

Schang: I think we should be clear, too, that the farming operations we’re talking about are not your mom and pop farms. This is an operation that has 3,000 hogs in one pen.

Wallace: You might have four buildings with three to five thousand hogs in each building. And if you consider that each hog is 300-350 pounds and they’re fed intentionally to get very fat very quickly, you can’t even imagine the amount of waste. It’s like a small city besides some of these neighborhoods. They are no longer being built, but the law has given them so much immunity from future litigation, which I feel is extremely unjust.

Schang: It’s a little unusual that in a country where we hold property rights so dear, that for one use in particular, we would just let those rights go to the wind. It doesn’t seem very consistent from a legal perspective.

Wallace: That’s true. That’s why I took the case

Schang: That’s amazing, and it still remains the case today that the leading cause of water pollution in North Carolina is agriculture. And it remains true that most of the laws protect agricultural facilities from any meaningful environmental policies.

Wallace: The laws in North Carolina are not concerned about preserving the air or the water or the quality of life. Most of them have come about because of political lobbying and for all of the wrong reasons. I’m embarrassed by North Carolina and the failure of the leadership’s ability to influence the legislature on issues that are truly noteworthy.

Schang: One of the issues we’re working on here at Wake Forest is Heirs Property, which is something I know you’re familiar with. It deals with the fact that many African American rural families own land in a way that has never been protected in the deed system, and North Carolina is one of the few states that has not passed legislation to protect those families. South Carolina has passed it, Virginia has passed it, Georgia has passed it, but North Carolina has not. That’s another example.

Wallace: That’s interesting, because in the course of this case, I can’t tell you how many African American families that got the land—literally back to the slave days—as share cropers who were allowed to own it as part of their work. Slavery ended, but over the years the size of their farms dwindled. There would be stories like someone loaned them $300 and the next thing they know, they didn’t have their land anymore. And it’s story after story like that.

Schang: And that’s why there’s so much Heirs Property, because people learned not to go to the deed report—and not to go to lawyers, frankly—because their property disappeared. I don’t want to get off on a tangent, but that’s something I’m concerned about.

Wallace: But it’s an important issue, because there was so much racial injustice, inequality, and unfair things, particularly in counties where you have so much domination by one industry, and there are no other options for jobs or ways to make money. I’m sure that’s true, not just in agriculture, but in other areas of life, but those are the injustices that upset me. I’m fortunate to be allowed—whether I win or lose—to get involved in some of those.

Schang: What are some other environmental issues you see coming up for North Carolina? One thing you mentioned was wood pellets.

Wallace: There are so many environmental issues. Our firm did the Duke Power coal ash cases, but there’s still coal ash buried everywhere. Our firm’s been involved with the Colonial Pipeline for a few people in a small county in which the pipeline was leaking under their homes. And now you’ve seen the big problem in Huntersville and what’s happened there. That’s a big problem because those underlying pipes are so old. We talked about the Camp Lejeune housing in Fort Bragg. Housing is a big deal.

Reflecting on the wood pellets, there are a few southern states—and again, this is in Eastern North Carolina—where they are cutting down as many as a million trees. I’ve been to the Port of Wilmington, and you often see trucks coming that are full of wood pellets where the trees—beautiful trees—have been cut down. And what concerns me is that the wood pellets are being shipped to Europe—primarily to France and other countries—so it’s not regulated. And again, that is the problem with so many of the other environmental issues that our firm has faced, is lack of regulation.

Schang: It’s a difficult issue, wood pellets, because the idea is to try and replace coal, but some of the environmental scientists are unclear that the net benefit of wood pellets is really there. I think it’s still up in the air. I haven’t done enough research to have an opinion on it, but it concerns some people that it may not be as environmentally friendly as some might hope. Have you had any involvement with the forever chemicals (PFAS)?

Wallace: Interestingly, I had one of the first cases with PFAS chemicals. Four or five years ago, a very kind woman from Salisbury hired me because a truck had gone off the road and into the ditch. Sadly, the gentleman driving the truck died, but when the truck overturned in her ditch, the chemicals that were being carried spilled—and this was a tanker truck. The local fire departments from four or five counties came and immediately sprayed foam, because they were concerned about fire.

We went and tested, and her property was horrifically contaminated. Later, across the street, we tested and there was some contamination there. I became extremely concerned—and I still am today—about the foam, particularly for the firemen, who I think are heroes—like policemen, and to that degree, farmers—people who do the work of God. It’s very upsetting that people work with these, and they have no idea how bad they are.

Of course, the DuPont plant down in Fayetteville has contaminated the waterways and so many homes, and there’s ongoing litigation in the state house about that. But again, so much of this is because North Carolina has very lax regulations, primarily because of lack of money, but also because of lobbying and the influence of corporations.

A Wake Forest Lawyer

Schang: So we’ve talked about litigation. That’s what you do, you’re a litigation attorney. But students at Wake Forest have lots of different tools in their toolkit. They can lobby the legislature, they can try to get an executive to adopt regulations. They can try to change public opinion. How does litigation fit in with that in your mind?

Wallace: Litigation should probably be the last resort, and it would be if more people that were qualified would run for public office. In the Smithfield case, for example, all of that had been tried before. The Raleigh News and Observer won a Pulitzer Prize back in the early nineties for pointing out the problems [the hog waste] caused. Some of our clients had gone to the state, some had gone to the governor, some had gone to the EPA, they had gone to everyone they possibly could.

Young people today have to get involved, especially young lawyers. They have such a greater ability to make a difference now than we did with Facebook and all of that access. They have the ability to reach people far more than we could back in my older era.

Schang: Maybe one thing that’s happening, that is a positive, is that people are starting to understand how important state votes are, knowing who your state representative is, actually voting, and, as you said, maybe even running for office.

Wallace: What I’ve learned from the litigation that I’ve done is that the one thing we need to preserve is the right to a jury trial, because the jurors are your peers. And, we need to pay jurors more. That’s another project that bothers me because so many people can’t afford to be on a jury, but the right to a jury trial should be the number one right. That should be instilled and preserved in America.

Schang: In reading Wastelands, I noticed there were Wake Forest lawyers on both sides of the case. How do you deal with someone on the other side? Are they your mortal enemy?

Wallace: Absolutely not. The lawyers that defended the first three trials were Wake Forest grads, and of course I’m a Wake Forest grad, as is my daughter. It was Wake Forest versus Wake Forest. I had great respect for those defense lawyers who had graduated from Wake, and they spoke so highly of the school, as does everyone. To the law students, those of you that are here, you will go on to have your careers, but I think you will always cherish and appreciate the opportunity that you’ve been given by being admitted to Wake Forest Law. I certainly have. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me professionally.

By the way, I do want to say this: We’re looking for interns at our firm that are interested in some of these issues, and we primarily want interns from Wake Forest Law. If anyone is interested in interning some during the year, we’re 45 minutes away.

Schang: Get ready for the stampede.

Wallace: Wonderful. I hope so.

A Message to Students and Alums

​​Wake Forest has incredible alums who give back more primarily to North Carolina than I’ve witnessed at most other comparable private colleges. I’m on a college board or two, so I say that from a lot of experience.

I actually have a scholarship here, and it gives money annually to students who will go and take jobs for less money in the public sector, whether they’re a district attorney or a public defender or anything like that. It’s hard for students who work so hard, and they’re at the top of their class, to turn down—especially with student loans—the great jobs with the great money. And for those of you [reading], I encourage you to sometimes take the hard road because at the end of your career, I think you won’t regret it.