Appalachian Basin

Federal Judge Deals Major Blow to “Constitutionally Suspect” CELDF “Rights of Nature” Initiatives

Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund founder Thomas Linzey has made it clear that he has no issue with bankrupting towns to push his anti-energy “Rights of Nature” agenda. For one rural community in Pennsylvania, that’s exactly what could happen following a federal court ruling this week that found the Indiana County township financially responsible for enacting CELDF’s “constitutionally suspect” initiative.

Grant Township ordered to pay legal fees – a fraction of what is owed – because of its CELDF ordinance.

Pennsylvania-based CELDF has been pushing its initiatives across the United States, especially in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado, for years at the expense of taxpayers in the local communities the law firm has targeted. It convinced Grant Township to enact a so-called “Rights of Nature” ordinance to ban an oil and gas wastewater injection well proposed there by Pennsylvania General Energy (PGE), setting off a series of legal fights that the township and CELDF lost.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Baxter’s ruling this week against Grant Township’s claim that it should pay PGE’s legal fees shows just how detrimental CELDF’s actions can be for these communities:

“The limited financial means of Grant Township do not constitute special circumstances nor is any fee award automatically contrary to public policy here. Grant Township appeals to the sympathy of the Court regarding the dire financial circumstances that would be brought about by the award of any amount of attorney’s fees; nonetheless, “the losing party’s financial ability to pay is not a ‘special circumstance’” under § 1988.” (emphasis added)

Township lawyers argued that paying $102,979.18 – a fraction of what could have been demanded – would bring about “dire financial consequences” for the municipality. As Baxter explained, the other party in the litigation greatly reduced the amount it is asking for “in a good-faith effort to reduce the financial hardship on the Township.

Grant Township continued litigation despite a federal court determining its ordinance was preempted and sanctioning CELDF for “bad faith efforts.”

In this week’s decision, Baxter placed responsibility on Grant Township for prolonging the litigation even after she had already sanctioned CELDF regarding this case:

“Moreover, Grant Township should have to bear some of the responsibility here as it was on notice that the Ordinance was constitutionally suspect and likely preempted before it was passed. Even after the Ordinance was adjudged preempted by state law, Grant Township sought to make an end run around that judicial determination by amending its form of government and adopting the pre-empted and constitutionally deficient provisions in the form of a Home Rule Charter.” (emphasis added)

In 2018, Baxter reprimanded Lindzey and CELDF attorney Elizabeth Dunne, stating:

“This Court has determined that Attorneys Linzey and Dunne have pursued certain claims and defenses in bad faith. Based upon prior CELDF litigation, each was on notice of the legal implausibility of the arguments previously advanced…”

“Despite their own prior litigation, CELDF and Attorney Linzey, in particular, continue to advance discredited arguments as a basis for CELDF’s ill-conceived and sponsored CBR, and in doing so have vexatiously multiplied the litigation of this matter.” (emphasis added)

Baxter this week reiterated her earlier decision, explaining:

“In awarding sanctions to PGE under 28 U.S.C. § 1927, this Court found ‘[t]he continued pursuit of frivolous claims and defenses, despite Linzeys’ first-hand knowledge of their insufficiency and the refusal to retract each upon reasonable requests, substantially and inappropriately prolonged this litigation, and required the Court and PGE to expend significant time and resources eliminating these baseless claims.’”

This decision comes on the heels of a letter written by Pennsylvania Senior Deputy Attorney General Robert Willig in March that similarly took CELDF to task over its “Community Bill of Rights” ordinances like the one Grant Township enacted, saying,

“The courts have repeatedly ruled the CELDF CBRs illegal.”

Willig continued,

“In each cited action, the district court reviewed CELDF’s arguments and found them wanting, lacking argument predicated in law or facts, and failing to justify setting aside historically well-settled legal precepts… The most recent cases, including the instant action, find identical arguments reasserted, but not advanced in any material manner by distinguishing facts, analogy, or supporting case law from any court of coordinate or superior jurisdiction.” (emphasis added)


Despite all of this, CELDF continues to take its “Community Bill of Rights” and “Rights of Nature” initiatives to new towns. In Ohio, for instance, taxpayers in Youngstown defeated CELDF’s ordinance for the eighth consecutive time last November, while Lake Erie passed it and is gearing up for litigation similar to what Grant Township experienced.

And at the end of the day, it’s not CELDF that will be left footing the bill – it’s the taxpayers in these communities that continue to be targeted with ordinances that court after court have called frivolous and illegal.

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