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Rauterkus v. United States

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

November 14, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, by and through SONNY PERDUE, in his official capacity as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture; NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION SERVICE; and DENISE COLEMAN, in her official capacity as State Conservationist for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Defendants.

         Re: Motion for Preliminary injunction


          Susan Paradise Baxter, District Judge

         I. Procedural History

         Pending before this Court is Plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction. ECF No. 6.

         Plaintiffs David and Maria Rauterkus, owners of real property, initiated this civil action by filing a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief. ECF No. 1. As Defendants to this action, Plaintiffs name the United States of America by and through Sonny Perdue, in his official capacity as the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture; the Natural Resources Conservation Service ("NRCS"); and Denise Coleman in his official capacity as State Conservationist with the NRCS.[1]

         This case arises out of a voluntary easement executed between the Rauterkuses and the United States pursuant to the federal Wetland Reserve Program. After the Easement was signed, differences arose between the parties as to the type and scope of the conservation activities that were to occur on the property. Plaintiffs raise four separate legal claims[2]: Counts I and II arise out of § 706 of the Administrative Procedures Act, Count III arises out of the Quiet Title Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2409a, and Count IV is a claim of anticipatory trespass.[3]

         The complaint, along with a motion for temporary restraining order/preliminary injunction, was filed on August 23, 2019. Construction relative to the restoration and management activities provided for under the Easement was scheduled to begin on August 26, 2019. Because the undersigned was unavailable, the motion for temporary restraining order was assigned to Judge Marilyn Horan who granted the temporary restraining order as she concluded that "Plaintiffs would suffer irreparable harm, loss and injury" if "the construction on the property is permitted to commence." ECF No. 16. Judge Horan then scheduled an evidentiary hearing for September 3, 2019. Id. The parties requested an extension of time to prepare for the evidentiary hearing and that request was granted. By Consent of the parties, the undersigned issued an extension of the temporary restraining order until November 1, 2019. See ECF No. 31.

         Plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction seeks to have this Court issue a preliminary injunction "with regard to all restoration, protection, enhancement, maintenance, and management actions and activities set to commence on the property subject to the Warranty Easement Deed in Perpetuity, Wetland Reserve Program Easement No. 662D37l 1447. This preliminary injunction shall remain in place until a final decision has been reached with regard to Plaintiffs' underlying request for judicial review." ECF No. 8, page 3.

         No Answer has been filed by the Defendants and the Administrative Record is not before this Court at this early stage of the proceedings.

         II. Standard of Review and the Evidentiary Hearing

         A preliminary injunction is "an extraordinary remedy granted only in limited circumstances." Issa v. Sch. District of Lancaster, 847 F.3d 121, 131 (3d Cir. Jan.30, 2017) citing Ferring Pharm., Inc. v. Watson Pharm., Inc., 765 F.3d 205, 210 (3d Cir. Aug. 26, 2014). There are four factors a court must consider when evaluating a motion for preliminary injunctive relief:

1) Has the moving party established a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits (which need not be more likely than not);
2) Is the movant more likely than not to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief;
3) Does the balance of equities tip in its favor; and
4) is an injunction in the public interest?

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 922 F.3d 140, 152 (3d Cir. Apr. 22, 2019) citing Reilly v. City of Harrisburg, 858 F.3d 173, 179 (3d Cir. Jun. 26, 2017). After the movant meets the first two "gateway factors," the court then determines whether all four factors, taken together, balance in favor of granting the relief sought. Id.

         With this standard of review in mind, having now considered the testimony of the witnesses and the evidence admitted at the evidentiary hearing held on November 1, 2019, at which Plaintiff David Rauterkus and Jeff Werner, Assistant State Conservationist at NRCS testified, the Court makes Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law denying the motion for preliminary injunction. See Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52.

         III. Findings of Fact

         The Property and the Landowners

         1. David and Maria Rauterkus are the owners of approximately eighty (80) acres of real property at 3579 Fries Road, Espyville, in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.

         2. David and Maria Rauterkus have owned the property since 1991 and have lived on the property since 2000.

         3. Mr. Rauterkus explained that Mrs. Rauterkus was unable to be present at the preliminary hearing due to extreme fatigue from oral chemotherapy. Mrs. Rauterkus survived two bouts with breast cancer previously. In early spring of this year, Mrs. Rauterkus was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma and is currently treating. Mr. Rauterkus expressed the importance that the land issue resolves in his favor for his own sake, as well as for an aspect of his wife's healing. ECF No. 35, pages 17-18.

         4. At the time of the purchase of the property in 1991, about forty acres were fallow farmland and the other forty acres were forest. At that time, the land had not been farmed in over ten years. After the Rauterkuses took ownership of the property, the land was farmed for about eight years.

         5. During their ownership of the property, the Rauterkuses participated in two government programs to convert portions of the farmland into wetlands. This included the Partners program with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. See Plaintiffs' Exhibit 11.

         6. On July 22, 2010, David Rauterkus signed an Application form with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to participate in the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and the Wetland Reserve Program. Plaintiffs' Exhibit 1.

         Events Leading up to the Signing of the Easement Deed

         7. By letter from Jody Lasko, District Conservationist of the NRCS, dated December 13, 2012, the Rauterkuses were informed: "This letter is to explain your restoration options with respect to the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP). At this time this is my understanding of what NRCS has determined will meet the Program rules and procedures and address your management goals..." Plaintiffs' Exhibit 2.

         8. The December 13, 2012 letter detailed the project goals and ended with the admonition that "WRP policies dictate that you will not be able to modify these projects in any waywithout NRCS written permission. Plaintiffs' Exhibit 2 (emphasis in original).

         9. Between the time the Rauterkuses applied for the WRP and the time the Easement Deed was signed and recorded, multiple government officials had multiple contacts with the Rauterkuses including multiple site visits to the property.

         10. Before signing the deed, Mr. Rauterkus expressed concerns that the written restoration plan was not part of the closing document. Mr. Rauterkus was told that the NRCS did not produce restoration plans prior to the closing, but that the plan would be developed after the deed was signed and that Mr. Rauterkus would "be able to participate in the development of that plan and the management plan." ECF No. 35, pages 59-60.

         11. Mr. Rauterkus questioned why an addendum entitled "Exhibit D - Water Uses and Water Rights"[4] was not part of the closing documents and he was told that the agency "didn't do Exhibit D's." Id. at pages 64-67.

         12. Because he was concerned with being able to utilize water on his properly, Mr. Rauterkus was told that it would be "taken care of through a compatible use agreement." Id.

         13. Later, Mr. Rauterkus was told that compatible use agreements were only made after restoration work was completed. Id. at page 69.

         14. Mr. Rauterkus explained that he felt pressure to sign the Easement Deed. Mr. Rauterkus believed that if he and his wife decided not to sign the Easement Deed, they would be responsible for all costs the agency had expended in preparation for restoration work on his property. Mr. Rauterkus believed the agency had spent in excess of $50, 000 for this preparation work. Id. at page 70.

         15. Mr. Rauterkus read the Easement Deed multiple times before signing it. Id. at page 116.

         The Easement Deed

         16. Around August 28, 2013, David and Maria Rauterkus signed the Warranty Easement Deed in Perpetuity. Plaintiffs' Exhibit 5. The Rauterkuses granted the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture an easement, the purpose of which was "to restore, protect, manage, maintain, and enhance the functional values of wetlands and other lands, and for the conservation of natural values including fish and wildlife and their habitat, water quality improvement, flood water retention, groundwater recharge, open space, aesthetic values, and environmental education." The Easement explains that "It is the intent of NRCS to give the Landowner the opportunity to participate in the restoration and management activities on the easement area. By signing this deed, the Landowner agrees to the restoration of the Easement Area and grants the right to carry out such restoration to the United States." Id.

         17. The Deed reserves "... to the landowner only those rights, titles and interests expressly enumerated in Part Two, it is the contention of the landowner to convey and relinquish any and all other property rights not so reserved." Id.

         18. In Part Two, the Easement Deed makes several Reservations to the Landowner, including Title, Quiet Enjoyment, Control of Access, Recreational Uses, Subsurface Resources and Water Uses and Water Rights. Id.

         19. The Landowner reserves Subsurface Resources only to the extent that the terms and conditions are listed in EXHIBIT C and appended to and made a part of the Easement Deed. There is no EXHIBIT C attached to the ...

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