A federal court in Pennsylvania has rejected a $6.5 million jury verdict against three Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regulators and one former agency attorney, ruling that they are protected by qualified and sovereign immunity because the lawsuit challenged their professional duties. MFS, Inc. v. DiLazaro, No. 08‑2508 (E.D. Pa. 2/16/11).
In its 142-page decision, the court ruled that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on all federal claims and sovereign immunity on state claims alleging that the regulators prevented plaintiff from continuing business or selling its plant in 2006. The jury found that each defendant was liable in his individual capacity for violating plaintiff’s constitutional rights and interfering with its business when they allegedly caused the mineral wool producer to shut down over noxious emissions allegedly coming from the plant.
The company operated a mineral wool plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, from 1988 to 2006. On several occasions during that period, Pennsylvania DEP issued notices of violation and other enforcement documents to the company seeking to remedy a “sulfur-like malodor” based on its investigation of a complaint about the plant. Defendants are the former program manager for the Air Quality Program of Pennsylvania DEP’s Northeast Regional Office, the current Air Quality Program manager of the office, the office’s regional director, and an agency attorney assigned to the office. They allegedly said that the company was “a known air polluter, a known nuisance, the source of odors in the . . . region, and an emitter of benzene, which was a toxic, cancer causing agent.”
Plaintiff subsequently wrote letters complaining of the defendants’ actions to members of Congress, and an agency superior disciplined at least one defendant. On May 29, 2008, plaintiff filed the lawsuit against defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violation of its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and also alleging violations of Pennsylvania law, including intentional interference with prospective contractual relations.
In its decision granting judgment to defendants as a matter of law, the court held that, because defendants were acting in their capacities as Pennsylvania DEP employees, their actions were protected by the cited immunities. According to the court, “MFS in fact failed to prove that the defendants retaliated against it . . . or that they otherwise acted inappropriately in targeting the company for malodorous emissions, . . . .”