Correction: Pa. DEP officials not liable in $6.5M lawsuit

Michael P. Tremoglie May 2, 2012, 3:29pm

Editor's note: The following is a corrected version of a story published Tuesday that incorrectly reported Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection employees were held liable for $6.5 million in damages in a lawsuit recently decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

PHILADELPHIA (Legal Newsline) - The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Thursday overturned a jury verdict that found officials of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection liable, individually, for damages totaling $6.5 million.

The 2010 case involved Mineral Fiber Services, Inc., alleging three employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the government attorney assigned to the DEP violated its Constitutional First and Fourteenth Amendments rights.

The decision affirmed a 2011 U.S. District Court ruling that overturned the state court verdict.

"The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's Northeast Regional office is very relieved with the appellate court's ruling," said Colleen Connolly, community relations specialist for the Pennsylvania DEP.

"Obviously the ruling means that DEP employees were doing their jobs appropriately. We would never engage in conduct that would be detrimental to any business. It is our duty to uphold the environmental laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

Mineral Fiber Services alleged a violation of its right to petition the government for redress of grievances without retaliation as well as violations of its rights to substantive and procedural due process and to equal treatment under the law.

The company also brought a state law claim of "tortious interference with prospective contractual relations" according to court records. The company won a jury verdict. The district court granted DEP's officials post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law. The appeal to the Third Circuit followed.

MFS claimed that DEP officials Thomas Dilazaro, Sean Robbins, Mark Wejkszner and Michael Bedrin colluded with one another to prevent MPS from obtaining a permit necessary to continue its operations of a steel wool plant. The plaintiff further claimed the defendants disrupted its business and interfered with its business relationships. They cited public statements by the defendants blaming MFS for high malodor levels in the Bethlehem, PA. area.

The company brought the action for the defendants in an individual capacity for $6.5 million dollars in damages. Normally, government workers are protected by the doctrine of sovereign immunity from such claims when acting within the scope of their official duties, according to court documents.

But, MFS asserted First Amendment retaliation and equal protection claims claiming the employees acted outside of the scope of their employment. The jury agreed, but the two federal courts did not..

The Third Circuit said that it exercised "plenary review of the District Court's grant of judgment as a matter of law."

After "carefully reviewing the record and the submissions of the parties here" the court said it could not find any reason for changing the District Court's ruling. The appeals court noted that the district court "explained that ruling in a comprehensive opinion that was as well-reasoned as it was thorough."

The appeals court said in its opinion, "Since we can add little to the district court's discussion, we will affirm the ruling of the district court substantially for the reasons set forth in the district court's opinion. Moreover, since, as the district court explained, there is no constitutional violation, we need not address any issues of qualified immunity."

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