Environmental Enforcement: Judge Throws Out $6.5m Fine for Staff Accused of Retaliation

by | Feb 22, 2011

A federal judge has reversed a decision that found four employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) personally liable for $6.5 million in damages incurred while performing their duties, according to a newspaper report.

In the original ruling made in March, a judge sided with now-closed Bethlehem, Pa,, mineral wool maker MFS, which said that it was subjected to retaliation by DEP staff after it had complained to a state legislator about previous enforcement action by the department.

MFS said the DEP staff issued a number of findings of air quality violations and delayed an air quality permit as revenge for the company’s complaint about the earlier enforcement action, the (Luzerne County) Citizensvoice.com reported.

The original ruling found the four employees – based out of the DEP’s Wilkes-Barre, Pa., office – each personally responsible for the charges and individually liable for damages. Michael Bedrin, former air quality program manager Thomas DiLazaro, current air quality program manager Mark Wejkszner and agency attorney Sean Robbins were each found liable for damages ranging from $650,000 to $2.6 million.

Department employees are usually protected from personal liability while carrying out their job, Citizensvoice said.

The judgment last week by Judge Joel Slomsky of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that it was “unjust to hold defendants liable in their individual capacity for lawfully performing their statutory and regulatory duties.”

“The jury’s verdict is contrary to the great weight of the evidence,” he wrote.

The department had agreed to pay the damages in the event that the appeal failed and prior to today’s decision it had heavily criticized the earlier decision.

“It becomes next to impossible to do the job if you’re going to run the risk of somebody filing a lawsuit and getting a jury trial where, to be blunt, just about anything can happen,” former DEP Secretary John Hanger said about the case prior to his recent departure from that position. “That threat can be completely debilitating to the environmental enforcement function of the department.”

Environmental advocacy group Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) welcomed Judge Slomsky’s decision.

“This case was wrong from the start,” said PennFuture CEO Jan Jarrett. “These officials were simply doing their jobs.

“If the court had not ruled this way, Pennsylvania’s environment and economy would have suffered greatly. Polluters would have threatened personal lawsuits against DEP officials at every turn,” Jarrett added.

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