BREAKING NEWS: John Duarte Settles TODAY Prior to Court Proceedings

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

Northern California farmer John Duarte spent years fighting the federal government after being fined for routine plowing on his wheat field which included protected wetlands. He attracted a nationwide army of conservative supporters who saw it as government overreach and hoped the Trump administration would order federal officials to back off.

But just before his trial was set to start Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Duarte settled, admitting no liability, but agreeing to pay $330,000 in civil penalty fines and another $770,000 for “compensatory mitigation,” in vernal pool mitigation credits.  

In a press release TODAY by John Duarte and Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), John Duarte said, “This has been a difficult decision for me, my family, and the entire company, and we have come to it reluctantly. But given the risks posed by further trial on the government’s request for up to $45 million in penalties, and the catastrophic impact that any significant fraction of that would have on our business, our hundreds of employees, our customers and suppliers, and all the members of my family, this was the best action I could take to protect those for whom I am responsible.”

“John would have preferred to see this case through to trial and appealed the court’s liability ruling, which holds that plowing a field requires federal permission — despite the clear text of the Clean Water Act and regulations to the contrary,” said Tony Francois, senior attorney, PLF.  “John and his counsel remain concerned that legal liability for farming without federal permission undermines the clear protections that the Clean Water Act affords to farming and poses a significant ongoing threat to farmers across the nation.”

The court will hold a hearing in approximately 45 days to approve the settlement.  In the meantime, the trial that was to begin today has been canceled.

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Duarte Nursery v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Update

PLF Attorney Reports Duarte Appeals Court Decision—Once Again

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

Damien Schiff, principal attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) who has been representing the Duarte family in their legal battle with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), provided this update after Judge Kimberly J. Mueller, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California dismissed their summary judgment motions on June 10, 2016, and ruled the Corps’ February 23, 2013 cease and desist order did not deprive Duarte of liberty or property. Schiff said his client’s next course of action is filing for an appeal of the judgment.

“It’s disappointing, in particular, because earlier in the case, we had received a very favorable decision from U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, the original Federal Judge assigned to our case who ruled in our favor on our due process challenge to the Army Corps’ cease and desist order.” Judge Karlton retired from the bench in 2014 and passed away in 2015. “It was particularly disappointing to see Judge Mueller reverse Judge Karlton’s decision.”

“Launching the appeals process will take some time,” Schiff explained. “Unfortunately, the case is complicated because there are a lot of claims going on and not all of them have been resolved by Judge Mueller’s decisions. The general rule in Federal Court is that you cannot appeal until a final decision has been made that decides all the claims against all the parties.”

Damien M. Schiff
Damien M. Schiff, Principal Attorney, Pacific Legal Foundation’s National Litigation Center

Considering the preponderance of hills and valleys across the United States, the magnitude of this case has growers—not just from California, but nationwide—concerned about the outcome and precedents resulting from this case, as well as the significance of future Army Corps-issued cease and assist orders.  “It is an amazing assertion of power by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Corps,” Schiff said, “and I think that’s why we see not just farming groups and property rights groups, but also a majority of the states, challenging the Agency’s Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) Rule.”

EPA Fact Sheet Clean Water Rule_Page_1A significant point of contention in the case, Schiff explained, stems from Judge Mueller’s ruling that because the Duarte property had not seen any farming activity since 1998, the Clean Water Act’s farming exemption was no longer applicable. “That’s, in part, why we challenged the cease and assist orders,” said Schiff, “because the Corps issued this directive without giving any prior notice, much less any opportunity to present contrary information. The reality is, this property, and the other properties in the entire area, have traditionally been used for agriculture, and are, in fact, zoned for agricultural use.” EPA Fact Sheet Clean Water Rule_Page_2

The Duarte case is so multifaceted,” Schiff said. “The land was always agricultural, and what was done on the property is consistent with normal agricultural farming practices; there is really nothing exceptional about what went on. What’s particularly problematic for the Corps here is that Duarte went above and beyond the call of duty by having a wetlands consultant ensure that all of the areas assessed to have vernal pool or wetlands characteristics were marked and avoided entirely.”

Whatever the outcome, the Duarte case will have far reaching effects on legal precedent throughout the agricultural community as well as on the cease and assist orders issued by the Army Corps to families throughout the country. “Surprisingly, there isn’t very much case law on what process, if any, is owed to the landowner before the agency issues these orders,” Schiff remarked. “However the Duarte case ends up, I think that will have to be litigated in other parts of the country.”

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