A coalition representing students attending Mars Area School District teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union to fight a lawsuit brought by shale drilling corporations that contends the group’s actions are halting appropriate and legal drilling opportunities.
ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Vic Walczak called the suit filed by Dewey Homes & Investment Properties a "SLAPP" suit, or strategic lawsuit against public participation. Such suits have been made illegal in nearly half of U.S. states including Pennsylvania.
“What these are is lawsuits that really have no merit that are typically filed by corporate interests, often developers, against political opponents," Walczak said. "And they have virtually no chance of succeeding.”
Rex Energy first proposed a Marcellus shale drilling pad on a farm about three-quarters of a mile from Mars Area High, Middle and Centennial schools in March, which school directors denied.
Current state law requires only a 500-foot buffer between school buildings and drilling sites.
The Mars Parent Group and others have implored local government to create a two-mile no-drill zone around all school buildings in Middlesex Township and collected signatures on an administrative challenge to the drilling permit. Dewey Homes filed suit with 12 other Marcellus shale gas leaseholders against the Clean Air Council, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and four Middlesex citizens in May.
“All of that is constitutionally protected activity and they cannot be sued for that,” Walczak said.
The ACLU sent a letter last week to Dewey Homes’ law firm Jones, Gregg, Creehan & Gerace requesting the suit be withdrawn. If it’s not and the clients are successfully defended, Walczak said the clients may ask for legal fees and damages associated with the suit, including emotional distress.
“These are not folks who are used to being in court,” Walczak said. “They did not bargain for getting sued simply because they stood up at township meetings and said, ‘Hey, we don’t want this drilling across the street from our kids’ school.’”
Rex Energy temporarily halted all activity at the Geyer farm in June following a court injunction. The ACLU motion to dismiss the original suit is set to be heard in Butler County Court of Common Pleas on Sept. 17.
Neither the company nor its lawyers would comment on the lawsuit. Walczak said the ACLU has not received a response to its letter.
To Walczak’s knowledge, this type of suit has never been brought against groups or individuals fighting hydraulic fracturing, he said.
“This is such a dangerous weapon against folks who just simply want to participate in the political process,” he said. “It shuts down dialog and we need to draw a very hard and fast line to prevent this kind of activity from spreading.”
Legal protections against SLAPP suits are usually created by state legislatures based on the belief that such suits have a chilling effect on free speech. Walczak said, in this case, the tactic is moving into previously uncharted waters.
The ACLU is representing David Denk, Jennifer Chokicki, Anthony Lapina and Joann Groman. Amy Nassif is also named in the suit but has retained her own legal counsel.