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Kaleta v. Clausi

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

September 24, 2014

DAVID F. KALETA, Plaintiff,

Carlson Magistrate Judge


Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge

September 24, 2014


This case presents an emotionally charged dispute centered around the changing relationship between a resident of a county committed to improving decrepit county property and the county itself, by and through its elected officials. Because there are genuine issues of disputed fact, two of the claims in this case will be permitted to proceed and will be slated for trial.

A. Procedural History

On September 17, 2012, plaintiff, David F. Kaleta filed a complaint and motion for a preliminary injunction in the Northumberland County Court of Common Pleas based on Northumberland County’s denial of Kaleta’s access to lands, through two of it’s commissioners, Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy. On September 27, 2012, Northumberland County Court of Common Pleas Judge Charles H. Saylor, to whom this matter was previously assigned prior to its removal to federal court, entered an injunction order allowing Kaleta access to the lands. ECF No. 1-4. On October 3, 2012, defendants removed the complaint to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and it was assigned to the Honorable John E. Jones III and jointly assigned to Chief Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson for report and recommendation on dispositive motions.

An amended complaint was filed on October 31, 2012. ECF No. 8. The three count amended complaint alleges defendants violated the Sunshine Act, 65 Pa. C.S.A. § 701, et. seq. and two distinct First Amendment violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, one alleging retaliation and the other, prior restraint allegations. The amended complaint also demands injunctive relief. The case was reassigned from Judge Jones to the underDated: January 17, 2013.

On November 4, 2013, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on all counts. ECF No. 45. On June 18, 2014, Chief Magistrate Judge Carlson prepared a report and recommendation for the Court recommending that the claims for injunctive relief and unlawful prior restraints be dismissed, and that the claims of Sunshine Act violations and First Amendment retaliation be permitted to proceed to trial. ECF No. 56.

Defendants objected to the recommenced disposition in the report and recommendation, and plaintiff has responded to those objections. Plaintiff did not object to the recommended dismissals of the prior restraint claim and demand for injunctive relief. Accordingly, the undersigned will conserve judicial resources and adopt the recommendation of the Chief Magistrate Judge on these two issues in full without further comment.

As will be discussed in detail below, the Court has throughly reviewed all of the filings in this case. The Chief Magistrate Judge’s recommendations to the Court governing all the other issues are wholly correct and will be adopted in full.

B. Allegations in the Complaint and Undisputed Facts

As an initial matter, the factual background is lengthy and dense, and all facts are adopted from the report and recommendation as set forth by Chief Magistrate Judge Carlson. ECF No. 56, p. 3-24.

Plaintiff, David F. Kaleta (hereinafter “Kaleta”) is a resident of Shamokin, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Defendants are Northumberland County and two of the three current County Commissioners, Vinny Clausi (hereinafter “Clausi”) and Stephen Bridy (hereinafter “Bridy”). Clausi took office in 2008 and Bridy took office in 2012. Prior to Clausi and Bridy’s elections, Kaleta apparently had good relationships with Northumberland County officials. In fact, the third current commissioner, Richard Schoch, who also took office in 2012, was not sued by Kaleta. It appears from the undisputed facts that Schoch and Kaleta have a positive working relationship.

There exists in Northumberland County a vast, 6, 500 acre, undeveloped tract of land. Kaleta has been actively involved in trying to enhance the land. His work improving the land began a decade before Clausi and Bridy were elected as commissioners of Northumberland County. Prior elected officals worked well with Kaleta and were pleased with his efforts, which include planting more than 45, 000 trees on the land and developing wildlife habitats. Kaleta’s vision for the land appears to be one where animals and humans can coexist in harmony with one another. Kaleta has won a statewide award for his volunteer efforts.

The origins of the dispute between Kaleta and the two commissioners can be traced to events that began years prior to the defendant commissioners’ elections. In 2007, a third party, Barry Yorwarth (hereinafter “Yorwarth”), conceived of an idea to turn the land into a place for owners of motorized vehicles to be able to enjoy off-road driving recreation, and began planning the project in 2008 with the help of state agencies, specifically the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Yorwarth is a member of the Northumberland County Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Authority (hereinafter “AOAA Authority”), an entity created to govern the 6, 500 acre tract as land dubbed the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (hereinafter “AOAA”). Yorwarth reached out to Kaleta to ask him to help with the motorized vehicle off-road driving project plans; Kaleta declined.

However, both contemporaneously to Yorwarth’s work, and prior to it, Kaleta had also been working with state agencies, specifically the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, to further his vision for the land. In 2001, Kaleta created a conservation group called Habitat for Wildlife (hereinafter “HFW”) to improve abandoned mines on the AOAA property to benefit wildlife and people. The individuals who were members of the County government at that time were pleased that Kaleta was willing to volunteer his time to organize reforestation efforts and prevent illegal dumping on the AOAA property. The Pennsylvania Game Commission and Department of Environmental Protection provided seedlings to Kaleta that the Northumberland County Commissioners permitted him to plant on the AOAA property.

In 2005, Kaleta incorporated HFW as a non-profit corporation in order to execute a lease with Northumberland County so that he could receive conservation grants from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to plant saplings on the land.

The relationship between Kaleta and Northumberland County began to sour in 2008. That year Northumberland County planning director refused HFW’s request to improve the property and further refused Kaleta’s request to tour the land with a representative of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. In 2010, Kaleta was notified by Northumberland County that the HFW’s lease ...

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