In a major victory for public health and the environment in Pennsylvania, a federal court of appeals in Philadelphia issued a decision today upholding the ruling of a trial court in favor of three employees and an ex-employee of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The appeals court opinion is seen as pivotal, since it allows state officials in Pennsylvania to enforce environmental laws without fear of personal financial disaster.
In the case, four employees from the Northeast Regional Office of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (Wilkes-Barre) were found liable for $6.5 million in damages while enforcing state public health rules. Subsequently, a federal judge ruled that there was not sufficient basis to award the damages to MFS, Inc., a former mineral wool manufacturer, and reversed the jury verdict. MFS then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Today’s appeals court opinion stated that “no basis for disturbing the District Court’s ruling” was found, and that the District Court opinion “was as well-reasoned as it was thorough.” The decision, made by a panel of three judges, was unanimous against MFS.
“This is a big victory for public health,” said Charles McPhedran, lead attorney for Earthjustice, who represented several Pennsylvania environmental and public health groups in the case. “This decision means that Department of Environmental Protection staffers can do their job—without fear of personal attack. Now the cop can return to the beat.”
In an alarming and unprecedented verdict that sent shock waves through both state government and the environmental community in Pennsylvania, in March 2010 a state jury issued a $6.5M verdict personally against four current and former employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for violating the constitutional rights of MFS.
MFS’ operations at a plant in Bethlehem, Pa. had provoked many complaints from neighbors and local officials about air pollution. The DEP employees had responded with enforcement measures against the plant, which closed in 2006.
After trial, the federal judge found that the employees acted lawfully, and vacated the damage awards. Earthjustice and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) filed a friend of the court brief urging the Third Circuit court to affirm the trial judge’s decision in favor of the DEP workers, so that DEP could continue to effectively enforce the law and protect the public health. Joining the brief were Physicians for Social Responsibility—Philadelphia; Clean Air Council, an advocacy group in Pennsylvania; Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture), a statewide advocacy group; and the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association, a statewide professional group.
"The panel's decision represents a victory for environmental enforcement that all Pennsylvanians—particularly those in our most vulnerable communities—should be able to rely upon," said Adam Cutler, co-counsel for the public health and environmental groups.
Earthjustice, PILCOP and the groups underscore the severe chilling effect on law enforcement that would flow from subjecting government officials to trial in their personal capacities when they enforce environmental laws in good faith. With this victory, the groups look to discourage all such trials in the future.
“Industry brought a legal challenge against state officials because they were just doing their job enforcing pollution limits,” said Joe Minott, Executive Director, Clean Air Council. “If the company had succeeded in blocking enforcement of the law, Pennsylvanians would ultimately have suffered more pollution. Thankfully, today’s court ruling upholds the right of the public health stewards to do their job.”