Second SLAPP Lawsuit Under Review in Butler County PA

by Duane Nichols on May 21, 2016

Pittsburgh-area drilling opponents have their say in court

From an Article by Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 20, 2016

It may be spring in Western Pennsylvania, but there’s a new chill in the air in Butler County, where opponents of shale gas drilling and fracking near the Mars School District campus say they feel intimidated by gas leaseholders’ legal efforts to silence them.

“Our focus is all about protecting the 3,700 children at the Mars schools, but because of these lawsuits there are already people who have become shy and have stepped away from the group,” Shelly Titchen, a member of the Mars Parent Group, said Thursday afternoon at the Butler County Courthouse.

Ms. Titchen was one of more than 60 people — drilling opponents and shale gas leaseholders — who jammed the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge S. Michael Yeager to listen to arguments about whether to dismiss the second personal injury land use case brought by leaseholders, who claim drilling opponents have denied them the ability to make money from the mineral rights they own beneath properties in Middlesex.

The gas leaseholder lawsuit seeks more than $500,000 from opponents, including the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the Clean Air Council, claiming that they have conspired in a “sham” effort to interfere with gas lease contracts by making false statements to the zoning hearing board and appealing the board’s decision to open up 90 percent of the township to drilling.

Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania, filed the motion to dismiss the case, arguing, as he did in September in the first lawsuit filed by the leaseholders, that the second one also is a “SLAPP suit.” That’s a strategic lawsuit against public participation, aimed at silencing, penalizing and chilling participation of individuals and groups engaged in the debate of important public policy issues.

“The First Amendment allows people to participate in debate and criticism in the public square,” Mr. Walczak said. “They cannot be penalized for that.”

“The First Amendment cannot be used to protect … false statements that interfere with the rights of my clients to receive payments for what’s on their property,” said attorney Richard Sandow, who represents 12 individual landowners and Dewey Homes and Investment Properties LLC. He denied that the case was a SLAPP suit.

All of those landowners have leased their shale gas to R.E. Gas Development, a Rex Energy subsidiary, which has built the Geyer drill pad along Route 228, less than a mile from the Mars schools. It has already drilled three vertical wells and is now drilling the horizontals. Fracking is scheduled for this summer.

Judge Yeager will consider Thursday’s arguments, but he set no time frame for a decision. The first leaseholder lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Marilyn K. Horan in October, about a month after she heard arguments.

Reid Joyce, a Middlesex resident, who described himself as an “observer,” not an opponent, said the leaseholder lawsuit has already had a big impact in the rural township.

“People are scared to speak out and depressed and reluctant to participate in public meetings, so it’s already sort of successful,” Mr. Joyce said. ”But if my three kids were still school age, I’d be terrified for them. And if I lived right next to the drill site like some of these people here, I’d be scared to death.”

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SLAPP Rejected June 1, 2016 at 7:06 am

Leaseholder SLAPP suit dismissed in Butler County
Butler County judge dismisses suit brought by 13 Middlesex Township oil and shale gas leaseholders
June 1, 2016 12:31 AM

By Don Hopey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Butler County judge has dismissed a case in which 13 Middlesex Township oil and shale gas leaseholders claimed they were denied the opportunity to make money from selling their mineral rights and sought damages from drilling opponents.
The leaseholders lawsuit alleged that the actions of the drilling opponents, including legal appeals of a zoning hearing board decision, were a “sham” intended only to delay and interfere with their leases, and sought damages in excess of $500,000.
The defendants, five individuals and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and the Clean Air Council, argued that the lawsuit was without merit because their actions were constitutionally protected speech. Their attorney, Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the court during a May 19 hearing that the lawsuit was a “SLAPP suit” — a strategic lawsuit against public participation — aimed at penalizing and chilling legally protected comments and appeals.
Common Pleas Judge S. Michael Yeager, in a ruling dated May 26, agreed that the drilling opponents “engaged in protected activity,” and dismissed the personal injury land use case “in its entirety, with prejudice.”
Mr. Walczak, the lead defense attorney on the case, said the ruling confirmed that under the First Amendment, “people who speak out and organize against government activity cannot be sued for engaging in these time-honored political and legal hallmarks of our democracy.”
Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, said efforts to try to scare the drilling opponents were proven wrong by the decision. “Judge Yeager has sent an important message that SLAPP suits designed to silence will not be tolerated,” Ms. van Rossum said.
Drilling opponents had appealed a township zoning change in September 2014 that allowed the drilling and hydraulic fracturing of six shale gas wells on the Geyer well pad, located along Route 228, less than a mile from the Mars School District campus where 3,200 students attend classes. Two of the wells have been drilled. Fracking is scheduled for this summer.
An earlier personal injury lawsuit brought by the same group of leaseholders and alleging the same damages from the same opponents was dismissed by Butler County Judge Marilyn K. Horan in October for failure to cite specifics, but that decision allowed the suit to be amended and refiled. Judge Yeager’s decision does not allow the leaseholders to refile on the same issue.
Attorney Richard Sandow, who represented the leaseholders in both lawsuits, did not return a call requesting comment. The leaseholders, including Dewey homes and Investment Properties LLC, have contracts with Dale Properties, LP; Range Resources; and R.E. Gas Development LLC, a subsidiary of Rex Energy.


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