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LIGHT v. HAWS

September 13, 2005.

JOHN D. LIGHT, Plaintiff
v.
CHARLES B. HAWS, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHRISTOPHER CONNER, District Judge

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment on the claims of plaintiff John D. Light ("Light"), brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for monetary damages to compensate for allegedly unlawful searches and retaliatory conduct by officials of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ("DEP"), and for a declaration that several provisions of Pennsylvania's Solid Waste Management Act, 35 PA. CONS. STAT. §§ 6018.101-.1003 ("SWMA"), are unconstitutionally vague. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Statement of Facts*fn1

  A former dairy farmer, Light now owns and operates almost 200 apartment units scattered throughout south-central Pennsylvania. (Doc. 64, Ex. 1 at 1; Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 7, 10-11). He resides on a farm in Lebanon County, upon which is situated a garage, a barn, several trailers and mobile homes, various pieces of heavy equipment, and a chicken coop. (Doc. 64, Ex. 1 at 1, 2; Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 201). Within the garage and barn Light stores auto parts, tools, building materials, appliances, and furnishings for his apartments. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 201-04; Doc. 64, Ex. 1 at 1). The trailers contain various items abandoned by former tenants, as well as old tires to be reused or sold to consignment shops. (Doc. 64, Ex. 1 at 2; Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 125, 191, 193). The heavy equipment stored on Light's property includes trucks, tractors, log skidders, and farming equipment. (Doc. 64, Ex. 1 at 2). Outside, Light stores sheet metal, lumber, pipe, window frames, and firewood, as well as metal drums which he either resells or uses to store gasoline, oil, and antifreeze for his equipment. (Doc. 64, Ex. 1 at 1-4). Most of Light's possessions were purchased from consignment sales or removed from his rental properties, and are intended for refurbishment and reuse, if possible, in his apartment units. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 9-10, 201-02; Doc. 64, Ex. 1 at 1-2).

  Light's property has garnered the attention of local and state authorities in recent years. In January 1998, officials from DEP visited Light's farm in response to a citizen complaint, and requested access to the property for an inspection. (Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 6-8, 18; Doc. 44, Attach. 2 ¶ 3). Light initially refused, but acquiesced to the search when the officials said that, if he persisted, they would obtain a search warrant and then fine Light for obstructing their investigation. (Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 8, 13-18; Doc. 44, Attach. 2 ¶ 4). Light was subsequently cited for unlawfully possessing and storing "waste" on his property. (Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 8, 20).

  Two years later, DEP investigator Robert Belfanti ("Belfanti") visited Light's farm and informed him that he was in violation of various regulations. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 44-45; Doc. 64, Ex. 3 at 15; Doc. 64, Ex. 9 at 18). Light subsequently received a citation related to those violations, and was fined $1,000. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 42, 484-9). He appealed the fine to a state court and succeeded in having it reduced to $300. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 50-51). Belfanti and another DEP official, Anthony Rathfon ("Rathfon"), were present during the state-court proceeding and, according to Light, were extremely upset at the reduction. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 52-53, 59-60). They purportedly followed Light from the courthouse back to his farm, entered Light's barn without permission, and declared the majority of the barn's content waste, demanding that it be removed. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 54-55, 170-71).

  In November 2001 Light's garage caught fire. DEP was contacted when firefighters at the scene observed metal drums near the flames. (Doc. 64, Ex. 1 at 45-; Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 40-42, 60; Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 74-75). A DEP official arrived at the fire and was able to confirm that the drums did not pose an immediate risk to the environment. (Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 27, 43). However, when interviewed by a local television news crew, the official purportedly stated that he had observed violations while on the property, and that Light was a "packrat" with whom DEP was having problems. (Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 23; Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 83). Although Light declined to provide an interview on camera, he relayed to a reporter that he was working with DEP and that everything was "okay." (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 77-78). The story was later broadcast and, although Light could be seen speaking with others, the conversation itself could not be heard. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 76-77).

  While at the fire, the DEP official was told by an unknown individual that Light was storing tires and other objects on the southern parcel of the farm, across the street from Light's garage. (Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 32-33, 37-38; Doc. 44, Attach. 2 ¶ 8). This information was subsequently relayed to Belfanti and Rathfon. (Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 27, 43; Doc. 44, Attach. 2 ¶ 9). The following morning, Light observed Belfanti and another DEP official on the farm assessing the fire damage. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 85, 212; Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 37-39; Doc. 44, Attach. 2 ¶ 9). After looking at the fire-damaged garage, the officials advised Light that they had received a complaint of tires being stored across the street, and requested entry onto that part of the property. (Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 37-39; Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 91-92, 209-210). Light refused, and pointed to the "no trespassing" signs posted on his land. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 919-2, 107; Doc. 44, Attach. 5 ¶ 4,7; Doc. 44, Attach. 2 ¶ 10; Doc. 44, Attach. 3 ¶ 11). Belfanti purportedly responded by warning Light that, if they were forced to obtain a search warrant, Light would be fined $2,000. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 96, 105). Light again refused, and the officials left. (Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 34). The DEP officials returned several hours later with a search warrant.*fn2 (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 108, 115-16). Construction waste, farming supplies, several thousand stacked tires, and piles of scrap metal overgrown with brush were found on the property. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 124-128; Doc. 64, Ex. 2 at 46-47). In a subsequent meeting with Belfanti, Rathfon, and DEP investigator Stephen Bartos ("Bartos"), Light was allegedly advised that he would be fined $2,000 under the SWMA for making them obtain a search warrant and that DEP was going to "get him." (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 124-28, 134, 136-37; Doc. 64, Ex. 9 at 18). Light received a DEP compliance order, purportedly dated two months prior to his receipt, demanding that he clean up the farm within ninety days. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 136-38, 153). According to Light, he attempted to negotiate the fine, but was told that there would be no negotiating, that penalties were going to increase from that point forward, and that fines could be levied at $25,000 per day if he did not comply. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 139-40). Defendants aver that they offered to limit the penalty to $2,000 if Light would sign a consent assessment form. (Doc. 44, Attach. 4 ¶¶ 6-7). However, Light refused to sign the agreement, and on February 22, 2002, Bartos assessed a penalty of $6,000 upon Light for refusing DEP officials access to his farm without a warrant. (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 163-68; Doc. 44, Attach. 4 ¶ 3, 10).

  Light also received a DEP compliance order to clean up the items that were found on his property. He filed an appeal from this order with the Environmental Hearing Board ("EHB"). (Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 118-20, 122; Doc. 44, Attach. 6 ¶ 3). Attorney Charles B. Haws ("Haws") represented DEP during these enforcement proceedings. (Doc. 44, Attach. 6 ¶¶ 4, 7-8). Following one judicial proceeding, Light's counsel purportedly provided Haws with a draft of the complaint which he intended to file in this case. After reviewing the draft complaint, Haws allegedly became very agitated and threatened Light and his counsel with further "harassment," purportedly telling Light to "just wait and see."*fn3 (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 51-55; Doc. 64, Ex. 1 at 8; Doc. 64, Ex. 9 at 189-90). Light alleges that DEP has since renewed its effort to harass and intimidate him, and that he complies with DEP directives only to have officials revisit his farm and issue new directives. (Doc. 64, Ex. 1 at 9; Doc. 64, Ex. 4 at 98-99, 177, 189-90).

  The instant action was commenced in April 2003, and an amended complaint was filed eight months later, naming as defendants Belfanti, Rathfon, Bartos, Haws, the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (See Docs. 1, 21). The amended complaint alleges violations of the state constitution and the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and seeks monetary damages and a declaration that provisions of the Solid Waste Management Act are unconstitutionally vague.

  II. Standard of Review

  "Summary judgment serves as a minimal but important hurdle for litigants to overcome before presenting a claim to a jury." Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 314 (M.D. Pa. 2004). Faced with such a motion, the adverse party must produce affirmative evidence, beyond the disputed allegations of the pleadings, in support of the claim. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Corneal v. Jackson Township, 313 F. Supp. 2d 457, 464 (M.D. Pa. 2003), aff'd, 94 Fed. Appx. 76 (3d Cir. 2004). "Such affirmative evidence — regardless of whether it is direct or circumstantial — must amount to more than a scintilla, but may amount to less (in the evaluation of the court) than a preponderance." Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 231-32 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989)). Only if this burden is met can the cause of action proceed. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986); see FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c), (e). III. Discussion

  Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code offers private citizens a means to redress violations of federal law by state officials. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The statute provides, in pertinent part, as follows:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress. . . .
Id. Section 1983 is not a source of substantive rights, but merely a method to vindicate violations of federal law committed by state actors. Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996). To establish a claim under this section, the plaintiff must show a deprivation of a "right secured by the Constitution and the laws of the United States . . . by a person acting under color of state law." Id. (quoting Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir. 1995)).

  Satisfaction of these elements, however, does not guarantee recovery. Certain officials, including police officers and other state actors who perform "discretionary functions," are shielded from suit if their conduct did not violate a "clearly established statutory or constitutional right? of which a reasonable person would have known." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 200-01 (2001); Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 609 (1999). This doctrine, known as "qualified immunity," provides not only a defense to liability, but "immunity from suit." Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227 (1991); Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985). To gain the protection of the doctrine, the defendant must show either (1) that the plaintiff has not demonstrated "a deprivation of an actual constitutional ...


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