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Case watch: Lake Erie Bill of Rights battle ends

Written by Peggy Kirk Hall and Ellen Essman

In the not-too-surprising news category, a federal court has invalidated the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) that Toledo residents passed last year to recognize and protect legal rights for Lake Erie.  What is surprising, however, is how the court reached its decision to strike down LEBOR, even in the wake of a law passed by the Ohio legislature in July of 2019 that denies legal standing right to nature and prevents a person from bringing a court action on behalf of nature or any ecosystem.

The verdict came exactly one year after Drewes Farm Partnership filed its federal lawsuit to prevent enforcement of LEBOR a day after Toledoans passed the measure.  Drewes Farm asserted that LEBOR violated the farm’s rights under the First Amendment, Equal Protection Clause, and Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.  Drewes Farm also argued that LEBOR exceeded the City of Toledo’s authority because it usurped the power of the state and the federal government by interfering with international relations, invalidating state and federal permits, invalidating state law, altering the rights of corporations, and creating new causes of action in state courts.  In April 2019, the state of Ohio joined the lawsuit as a fellow plaintiff.  Proponents of LEBOR unsuccessfully attempted to join in the litigation.

Did the plaintiffs have the right to bring the case?

The opinion begins with the court’s “standing” analysis.  Toledo argued that Drewes Farm and Ohio did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit against the City.  Legal standing requires that a plaintiff (1) suffers an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.  Failing to meet the legal standing requirement would force dismissal of the lawsuit.  Without a finding in favor of legal standing, the court wouldn’t be able to determine LEBOR’s validity.

The central issue in whether the parties had legal standing was the injury in fact requirement, according to the court.  To challenge LEBOR, the plaintiffs must demonstrate “concrete and particularized” injury that is “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.”  The court determined that the state of Ohio met this requirement because it suffered an injury, “at least on paper,” from LEBOR’s invalidation of Ohio laws, regulations, licenses and permits and because the state “could” be sued under LEBOR.  The judge also found that Drewes Farm demonstrated injury in fact since any Toledo resident “could” sue the farm for violating LEBOR.

In its brief attention to the second component of standing, that the injury is fairly traceable to the defendant, the court determined that the potential injuries were traceable to Toledo because its city charter was amended by voters to include the LEBOR language.  Even though the City itself did not legislatively enact LEBOR, had actually attempted to keep the issue off the ballot due to concerns that it was unconstitutional, and had not indicated any intent to enforce LEBOR, the court concluded that “the City is a proper defendant in the suit.”  The court also found that invalidating LEBOR would redress the plaintiffs’ injuries, the final requirement for legal standing.

LEBOR violates due process

The court next directly examined only one of the many constitutional claims against LEBOR, the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to due process, and specifically focused on one element of due process:  clarity of the law.  The court stated that if a law is vague and unclear, it can “trap the innocent by not providing fair warning and invite arbitrary enforcement by prosecutors, judges, and juries.”  Pointing to language in LEBOR such as the right of Lake Erie and its watershed to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” and Toledoans’ right to a “clean and healthy environment,” the court questioned what type of conduct would violate the broad language and how a judge or jury would determine the line between “clean and unclean and healthy and unhealthy.”  Spreading even a small amount of fertilizer could possibly violate LEBOR, the court said, as well as countless other activities such as catching fish, pulling weeds, planting corn, or driving a gas-powered vehicle.  Not surprisingly, the court concluded that the language is void for vagueness.  While LEBOR’s language sounds powerful, the court explained, it has no practical meaning, contains merely “aspirational statements” rather than rules of law, and violates constitutional due process.

What about other constitutional claims?

The court surprisingly didn’t tackle the many other constitutional issues raised by Drewes Farm and the State.  But in its “severability” analysis, the court did briefly touch on the constitutionality of LEBOR’s preemption of state and federal laws.  LEBOR contains a severability clause stating that a determination of one part of LEBOR as invalid does not invalidate the remaining parts of LEBOR.  According to the court, this severability clause is valid only if the constitutional and unconstitutional parts of LEBOR are capable of separation and can stand by themselves.  The court concluded that once the vague rights are stripped away, the remaining parts of LEBOR are meaningless.

The court then took the opportunity to note that LEBOR’s attempt to preempt Ohio law in the name of environmental protection would fail on its own merits.  Lake Erie’s health falls well beyond Toledo’s authority and rights to govern its internal affairs, and enacting laws that conflict with Ohio law is a “textbook example of what municipal government cannot do,” said the court.

Protecting Lake Erie is a worthy goal

In a slightly sympathetic nod to LEBOR supporters “frustrated by the status quo,” the court notes that using a democratic process to protect Lake Erie is a well-intentioned goal but LEBOR simply fails to achieve the goal.  Careful drafting by Toledoans could result in valid legislation that would reduce water pollution, the court explains, while highlighting an ordinance in Madison, Wisconsin that restricted the use of phosphorus-containing fertilizers in the city and withstood a legal challenge.

It comes as no surprise

Echoing what many had already concluded, the court criticized LEBOR’s authors for ignoring legal principals and constitutional limitations and stated that LEBOR’s invalidation should come as no surprise.  “This is not a close call,” the court says.  “LEBOR is unconstitutionally vague and exceeds the power of municipal government in Ohio.  It is therefore invalid in its entirety.”

Now what?

LEBOR has met the end of its road, but it never really stood a chance of actual enforcement due to its clearly unconstitutional language.  LEBOR’s proponents often claimed that the purposes of LEBOR were to gain more attention to Lake Erie’s poor water quality and to push the concept of recognizing legal rights for nature and ecosystems a bit further down the road.  Were they successful?  Will Toledoans give up, or will they regroup and carefully draft new legislation to protect their water?

Farmers in Ohio now have absolute certainty that they will not be sued for violating Lake Erie’s “rights,” but such a lawsuit never really stood a chance of actual success due to LEBOR’s clearly unconstitutional language.  And let’s not forget the new language in Ohio Revised Code §2305.01 stating that “nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas; no person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall bring an action in any court of common pleas; and no person shall bring an action in any court of common pleas against a person who is acting on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem.”

And what about Lake Erie’s water quality?  New voluntary programs are rolling out from Governor DeWine’s H2Ohio plan.  But many claim that more forceful measures are necessary.  Other litigation over the lake’s water quality lingers, and Ohio has listed the Western Lake Erie Basin as “impaired” and must develop a plan to address Total Maximum Daily Loads of pollutants in the lake.  It’s no surprise that even though it’s the end of the road for LEBOR, conflicts over solving Lake Erie’s water quality problems will continue.

Read the U.S. District Court’s opinion on LEBOR here.  For our in-depth look at LEBOR, click here.  We review other Lake Erie legal activities here.

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Ohio tackles “TMDL” for Lake Erie’s Western Basin

For the last several years, the state of Ohio and the U.S. EPA have been plagued with objections and lawsuits—from states, local governments, and environmental groups—concerning Ohio’s list of impaired waters and development of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for the Western Basin of Lake Erie. (Some of our past blog posts on the subject are available here, here, and here.) Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), states are required to submit a list of impaired, or polluted, waters every two years.  Typically, designating a water body as impaired triggers a review of pollution sources, determinations of TMDLs for different pollutants, and an action plan for meeting those TMDLs.  Ohio repeatedly failed to include the Western Basin in its list of impaired waters, even though the area has been subject to pollution-caused algal blooms in recent years.  When the state finally listed the Western Basin waters as impaired in 2018, it still did not develop the accompanying TMDL for the area.  However, Ohio’s TMDL drought ended last week.

Ohio EPA announced on February 13, 2020, that it would develop TMDLs for the Western Basin “over the next two to three years.” This decision will ultimately affect farmers in the watershed, as it is likely that the Ohio EPA would create TMDLs for phosphorus, nitrogen, and other fertilizers in the Western Basin. Consequently, farmers may have to reduce the amounts they put on their fields, and/or implement additional measures to keep such inputs from running off into the water.

So, Ohio listed the Western Basin as impaired and is working on TMDLs for the area—the controversy is over, right?  Not so fast.  Lucas County, Ohio and the Environmental Law & Policy Center filed a lawsuit against the U.S. EPA that is still ongoing.  (We last discussed this lawsuit here.) Basically, the plaintiffs in the suit are arguing that the U.S. EPA violated the CWA when it allowed the Ohio EPA to designate the Western Basin as impaired in 2018, but did not make the state develop TMDLs.  Even though Ohio has since promised to implement TMDLs for the area, the outcome of the case will still weigh in on the crucial question of whether the U.S. EPA can make states create TMDLs for impaired waters under the CWA.  In addition, the U.S. District Court case applies to Ohio’s 2018 impaired waters list, whereas Ohio EPA’s recent announcement concerns the 2020 list.  Finally, it’s doubtful that environmental groups and others will stop their efforts just because Ohio has now promised to create TMDLs—it’s almost a certainty that the debate over pollution in the Western Basin and the best ways to remedy the problem will persist.

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The Ohio Ag Law Blog–In Deep Water—EPA and states face lawsuits over water pollution

Written by Ellen Essman

Lawsuits against the U.S. EPA and individual states seem to be a popular strategy to address water pollution problems.  Last April, we wrote about Lucas County, Ohio and its suit against the EPA over water quality in the western basin of Lake Erie.  Since that time, a federal judge has given another lawsuit concerning Lake Erie, filed by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), the green light.  But not all litigation concerns Ohio waters—recently, Maryland’s attorney general was directed to sue the EPA and Pennsylvania over water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.   Here are summaries of these two developments.

Environmental Law & Policy Center vs. EPA

We wrote about this lawsuit in February 2019, when ELPC had just filed its complaint.  Essentially, ELPC contended that the U.S. EPA violated the Clean Water Act (CWA) when it allowed the Ohio EPA to designate Lake Erie as an impaired water body without instituting a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for pollutants going into the lake.  You can get more details on this case by reading our blog post, here.  Subsequently, EPA moved to dismiss the complaint.  In addition, Lucas County joined ELPC as co-plaintiffs.

On November 13, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio denied EPA’s motion to dismiss.  Judge James Carr ruled that the case can go forward, finding that ELPC “plausibly alleges that Ohio EPA has clearly and unambiguously refused to develop a TMDL for Western Lake Erie.” This means that the action will go forward and that ELPC will be able to argue the case on the merits.  You can read the ruling here.

Maryland to sue EPA, Pennsylvania

Meanwhile, in Maryland, the governor recently sent a letter to the state’s attorney general asking him to “commence litigation” against the EPA for “failing to enforce the Chesapeake Bay” TMDL, and against its upstream neighbor, Pennsylvania, for “repeatedly falling short of necessary pollution reduction goals.” At the center of this controversy is Pennsylvania’s draft Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP), which Maryland’s governor alleges will cause Pennsylvania to fall far behind its 2025 pollution reduction targets in addition to not meeting the TMDL.  The governor asserts that by accepting Pennsylvania’s WIP with very few changes, the EPA is failing to enforce Pennsylvania’s compliance with the established TMDL.

What’s next?

It typically takes these types of lawsuits a while to work through the courts. The way the courts decide these cases will affect how TMDLs are viewed.  Are TMDLs necessary under the CWA and enforceable, as the plaintiffs claim? Or are TMDLs simply soft goals and guidelines for reducing pollution that EPA does not necessarily have to enforce?  Ultimately, outcomes of these cases could have implications for agricultural runoff, which can be a contributor to pollution in both Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay.

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The Ohio Ag Law Blog–The Ag Law Harvest

Written by Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall

The holidays are almost here, 2019 is almost over, but the world of ag law isn’t taking a break.  From cannabidiol, to Ohio bills on water quality and wind power, to a cage-free egg law in Michigan, here’s the latest roundup of agricultural law news you may want to know:

FDA warns companies about cannabidiol products. If you’ve been following the hemp saga unfold over the past year, you know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been contemplating what to do with cannabidiol, or CBD from derived hemp products.  In addition to manufacturing standards, FDA has also considered how CBD products are marketed and labeled.  Although FDA has issued no official rules on CBD marketing and labeling, the agency has warned a number of companies that their marketing of CBD violates the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). On November 25, FDA sent warning letters to 15 companies.  FDA asserts that the companies “are using product webpages, online stores and social media to market CBD products in interstate commerce in ways that violate the FD&C Act.”  In particular, FDA is apprehensive about those companies who market CBD products in ways that claim they can treat diseases or be used therapeutically for humans and animals.  Since CBD has not been approved by FDA or found safe for these uses, companies cannot make such claims.  You can see FDA’s news release for more information and for the list of companies.

It won’t be as difficult for financial institutions to serve hemp related businesses.  Federal agencies and state bank regulators released a statement clarifying what is required of banks when hemp businesses are customers.  Since hemp was removed from the federal list of controlled substances, banks no longer have to file a Suspicious Activity Report on every customer involved in growth or cultivation of hemp just because they grow hemp.  This action will make it easier for those legally cultivating hemp to work with banks and obtain loans for their farms.  For more information, the agencies’ press release is available here.

Ohio House considers the Senate’s water quality bill.  Ohio’s House Energy & Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 2 just last week.  The bill would implement a Statewide Watershed and Planning Program through the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA). Under the bill, ODA would be charged with categorizing watersheds in Ohio and appointing coordinators for each of the watersheds.  ODA and the coordinators would work closely with soil and water conservation districts to manage watersheds.  Ag groups such as the Sheep Improvement Association, the Cattleman’s Association, the Pork Council, the Dairy Producers Association, and the Poultry Association testified in favor of SB 2.

Ohio House committee debates wind bill.  The House Energy & Natural Resources
Committee was busy last week—in addition to SB 2, they also discussed House Bill 401.  In the simplest terms, if passed, HB 401 would allow townships to hold a referendum on approved wind projects.  This means that with a vote, townships could overturn decisions made by the Ohio Power and Siting Board (OPSB).  In the committee hearing, wind industry representatives argued that such a referendum would be harmful, since it would overturn OPSB decisions after companies have already spent a great deal of money to be approved by the Board.  They also argued that the bill singles out the wind industry and does not allow referendums on other energy projects.  Republican committee members signaled that they may be willing to revise the language of HB 401 to allow a referendum before OPSB decisions.

Iowa’s ag-gag law is paused.  In May, we wrote about Iowa’s new ag-gag law, which was the state’s second attempt to ban undercover whistleblowers and journalists from secretly filming or recording at livestock production facilities.  In response, numerous animal rights groups sued the state, claiming that the law unconstitutionally prevents their speech based on content and viewpoint.  On December 2, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued a preliminary injunction, which means that the state will not be able to enforce the ag-gag law while the lawsuit against it is being considered. The preliminary injunction can be found here.

Cage free eggs coming to Michigan in 2024. Michigan lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 174, which, among other things, will require that all birds producing eggs both in and out of the state be housed in “cage-free” facilities by 2024.  The cage-free facilities will have to allow hens to roam unrestricted with the exception of exterior walls, and some types of fencing to contain the birds.  In an indoor facility, the farmer must be able to stand in the hens’ usable floor space while caring for them.  In addition, the facilities must have enrichments for hens such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes, and dust bathing areas. Michigan joins California, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington in banning non-cage-free eggs.  Note that Michigan’s law will apply to Ohio egg producers who sell eggs to buyers in Michigan.

Case watch:  hearing set in Lake Erie Bill of Rights case.   The court has set a January 28, 2020 hearing date for the slow moving federal lawsuit challenging the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) enacted by Toledo voters in February.  The hearing will likely focus on several motions to dismiss the case filed by the parties on both sides of the controversy, but Judge Zouhary indicated that he’ll set the agenda for the hearing prior to its date.  Drewes Farm Partnership filed the federal lawsuit against the City of Toledo in February, claiming that LEBOR is unconstitutional and violates several Ohio laws.  The State of Ohio was permitted to join the farm as plaintiffs in the case, but the court denied motions by Toledoans for Safe Water and the Lake Erie Ecosystem to join as defendants in the case.   For more on the LEBOR lawsuit, refer to this post and this post.  For our explanation of LEBOR, see this bulletin.

Stay tuned to the Ohio Ag Law Blog as we continue to track these and other developments in agricultural law through the holidays and beyond.

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Ohio Ag Law Blog–Ohio Legislation on the Move

Written by: Ellen Essman

We haven’t done a legislative update in a while—so what’s been going on in the Ohio General Assembly? Without further ado, here is an update on some notable ag-related bills that have recently passed one of the houses, been discussed in committee, or been introduced.

  • House Bill 7, “Create water quality protection and preservation”

This bill passed the House in June, but the Senate Finance Committee had a hearing on it just last month.  HB 7 would create both the H2Ohio Trust Fund and the H2Ohio Advisory Council.  To explain these entities in the simplest terms, the H2Ohio Advisory Council would decide how to spend the money in the H2Ohio Trust Fund.  The money could be used for grants, loans, and remediation projects to address water quality priorities in the state, to fund research concerning water quality, to encourage cooperation in addressing water quality problems among various groups, and for priorities identified by the Ohio Lake Erie commission.  The Council would be made up of the following: the directors of the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA), the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) the executive director of the Ohio Lake Erie commission, one state senator from each party appointed by the President of the Senate, one state representative from each party appointed by the Speaker of the House, and appointees from the Governor to represent counties, municipal corporations, public health, business or tourism, agriculture, statewide environmental advocacy organizations, and institutions of higher education. Under HB 7, the ODA, OEPA, and ODNR would have to submit an annual plan to be accepted or rejected by the Council, which would detail how the agencies planned to use their money from the Fund. You can find the bill in its current form here.

  • House Bill 24, “Revise Humane Society law”

HB 24 passed the House unanimously on October 30, and has since been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources.  The bill would revise procedures for humane society operations and require humane society agents to successfully complete training in order to serve.  Importantly, HB 24 would allow law enforcement officers to seize and impound any animal the officer has probable cause to believe is the subject of an animal cruelty offense.  Currently, the ability to seize and impound only applies to companion animals such as dogs and cats.  You can read HB 24 here.

  • House Bill 160, “Revise alcoholic ice cream law”

Since our last legislative update, HB 160 has passed the House and is currently in Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee in the Senate.  At present, those wishing to sell ice cream containing alcohol must in Ohio obtain an A-5 liquor permit and can only sell the ice cream at the site of manufacture, and that site must be in an election precinct that allows for on- and off-premises consumption of alcohol.  This bill would allow the ice cream maker to sell to consumers for off-premises enjoyment and to retailers who are authorized to sell alcohol. To read the bill, click here.

  • House Bill 168, “Establish affirmative defense-certain hazardous substance release”

This bill was passed in the House back in May, but there have been several committee hearings on it this fall.  HB 168 would provide a bona fide prospective purchaser of a facility that was contaminated with hazardous substances before the purchase with immunity from liability to the state in a civil action.  In other words, the bona fide prospective purchaser would not have the responsibility of paying the state of Ohio for their investigations and remediation of the facility. In order to claim this immunity, the purchaser would have to show that they fall under the definition of a bona fide prospective purchaser, that the state’s cause of action rests upon the person’s status as an owner or operator of the facility, and that the person does not impede a response action or natural resource restoration at the facility. You can find the bill and related information here.

  • House Bill 183, “Allow tax credits to assist beginning farmers”

House Bill 183 was discussed in the House Agriculture & Rural Development Committee on November 12.  This bill would authorize a nonrefundable income tax credit for beginning farmers who attend a financial management program.  Another nonrefundable tax credit would be available for individuals or businesses that sell or rent farmland, livestock, buildings, or equipment to beginning farmers.  ODA would be in charge of certifying individuals as “beginning farmers” and approving eligible financial management programs. HB 183 is available here. A companion bill (SB 159) has been introduced in the Senate and referred to the Ways & Means Committee, but no committee hearings have taken place.

  • House Bill 373, “Eliminate apprentice/special auctioneer licenses/other changes”

HB 373 was introduced on October 22, and the House Agriculture & Rural Development Committee held a hearing on it on November 12. This bill would make numerous changes to laws applicable to auctioneers.  For instance, it would eliminate the requirement that a person must serve as an apprentice auctioneer prior to becoming an auctioneer; instead, it would require applicants for an auctioneers’ license to pass a course. The bill would also require licensed auctioneers to complete eight continuing education hours prior to renewing their license.  HB 373 would give ODA the authority to regulate online auctions conducted by  a human licensed auctioneer, and would require people auctioning real or personal property on the internet to be licensed as an auctioneer. To read the bill in its entirety and see all the changes it would make, click here.

  • Senate Bill 2, “Create watershed planning structure”

Since our last legislative post, SB 2 has passed the Senate and is now in the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. If passed, this bill would do four main things. First, it would create the Statewide Watershed Planning and Management Program, which would be tasked with improving and protecting the watersheds in the state, and would be administered by the ODA director.  Under this program, the director of ODA would have to categorize watersheds in Ohio and appoint watershed planning and management coordinators in each watershed region.  The coordinators would work with soil and water conservation districts to identify water quality impairment, and to gather information on conservation practices.  Second, the bill states the General Assembly’s intent to work with agricultural, conservation, and environmental organizations and universities to create a certification program for farmers, where the farmers would use practices meant to minimize negative water quality impacts. Third, SB 2 charges ODA, with help from the Lake Erie Commission and the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission, to start a watershed pilot program that would help farmers, agricultural retailers, and soil and water conservation districts in reducing phosphorus.  Finally, the bill would allow regional water and sewer districts to make loans and grants and to enter into cooperative agreements with any person or corporation, and would allow districts to offer discounted rentals or charges to people with low or moderate incomes, as well as to people who qualify for the homestead exemption. The text of SB 2 is available here.

  • Senate Bill 234, “Regards regulation of wind farms and wind turbine setbacks”

Senate Bill 234 was just introduced on November 6, 2019.  The bill would give voters in the unincorporated areas of townships the power to have a referendum vote on certificates or amendments to economically significant and large wind farms issued by the Ohio Power and Siting Board. The voters could approve or reject the certificate for a new wind farm or an amendment to an existing certificate by majority vote.  The bill would also change minimum setback distances for wind farms might be measured.  SB 234 is available here.  A companion bill was also recently introduced in the House.  HB 401 can be found here.

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OHIO AG LAW BLOG—Case watch: LEBOR and Lake Erie battles linger

Written by Ellen Essman, Senior Research Associate, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program

It’s been a while since we’ve written about the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR)! As a refresher, LEBOR was passed in February in a special election as an amendment to Toledo’s city charter.  LEBOR was meant to create new legal rights for Lake Erie, the Lake Erie ecosystem, and to give Toledo citizens the ability to sue to enforce those legal rights against a government or a corporation violating them.  For a longer explanation on LEBOR, see our post here.  Since then, lawsuits for and against LEBOR have been filed, and the state of Ohio has passed legislation concerning the language in LEBOR. Updates on those actions will be discussed below.

Update on the Drewes Farm lawsuit

The day after LEBOR passed, Drewes Farm Partnership initiated a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Western Division, against the city of Toledo. Our initial blog posts concerning this lawsuit are available here and here.  In May, we discussed updates to the Drewes Farm lawsuit in yet another blog post.  Since our last update, the Lake Erie Ecosystem and TSW’s motion to stay pending appeal and the appeal were both denied, meaning the Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision to leave the ecosystem and TSW out of the lawsuit.  As a result, the current parties to the lawsuit are plaintiffs Drewes Farm Partnership and the State of Ohio, as well as the defendant City of Toledo.  In early June, both the Drewes Farm Partnership and the state of Ohio filed motions for judgement on the pleadings.  The district court has not yet determined whether to grant the motions; the City of Toledo’s response to the motions is due on August 9, 2019.  After the response is filed, the plaintiffs will have a chance to reply.

Toledo Citizens file lawsuit against State of Ohio

In the midst of the Drewes Farm lawsuit, yet another complaint has been filed concerning LEBOR.  On June 27, 2019, three citizens of Toledo filed a complaint against the state of Ohio in the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas.  In the complaint, the citizens, who all voted for LEBOR, asked the court to find that the state has failed to address pollution in Lake Erie, and due to its inaction, circumstances in the lake are getting worse, that LEBOR is enforceable under the Ohio Constitution and state law, and to issue an injunction to prevent the state from curtailing their rights under LEBOR.  Currently, it appears as though no response has been filed by the state of Ohio.  Perhaps the state wants to let recently passed legislation do the talking.

State budget bill includes language aiming to invalidate LEBOR, adds water quality initiative

Finally, the Ohio General Assembly has also gotten in on the LEBOR action.  On July 18, 2019, Governor DeWine signed the General Assembly’s budget bill into law.  Page 482 contains language that seems to be aimed at LEBOR and other environmental community rights initiatives.  Most importantly, the bill states:

  • Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate or bring an action in any court of common pleas.

  • No person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem, shall bring an action in any court of common pleas.

It will be interesting to see how courts handle lawsuits on behalf of ecosystems and nature after the passage of this budget law.

While the budget bill appears to take LEBOR and initiatives like it head-on, it also created a water quality initiative called “H2Ohio,” which includes a fund in the state treasury.  The money in the H2Ohio fund will go toward water quality improvement projects, including projects to reduce phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment pollution from agricultural practices.  With this initiative, the state seems to be offering an alternative way to protect its waters, including Lake Erie.

Work continues on sorting out the legality of LEBOR and the wider problem of Lake Erie pollution, and there appears to be no end in sight. Keep an eye on the Ohio Ag Law Blog for new developments on LEBOR lawsuits and the H2Ohio program!

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Ohio Ag Law Blog — Case Watch: The Lake Erie Bill of Rights Lawsuit

Written by Evin Bachelor, Law Fellow, OSU Extension Agricultural & Resource Law Program

Lawsuits can be a long and drawn out process, and the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) lawsuit has demonstrated that.  Two and a half months after the complaint in Drewes Farm Partnership v. City of Toledo was filed by the farm, which parties will be allowed to participate in the lawsuit is becoming somewhat clearer, but it might not be over yet.  However, a conference call between the court and the current parties scheduled for the end of this week may signal that some substantive action is on the horizon.

The State of Ohio is now a party.  Judge Zouhary granted Ohio Attorney General Yost’s motion to intervene, making the State of Ohio a party to the lawsuit.  The procedural rules for federal courts permit non-parties to ask a court to allow them into a lawsuit either as of right or at the judge’s discretion.  As of right means that a statute, rule, or case gives a non-party a right to enter into a lawsuit as a party.  In contrast, a discretionary intervention allows a judge to grant a motion to intervene at his or her discretion so long as the person or entity seeking to intervene has a “common question of law or fact” with a current party to the lawsuit.  Non-parties often argue both in order to cover all of their bases, which is what the Ohio Attorney General did in this case.  Judge Zouhary focused his analysis on discretionary intervention, and found that the state has asserted the same question as the plaintiff, Drewes Farms, in that Ohio’s constitution, statutes, and administrative regulations preempt the LEBOR amendment to Toledo’s city charter.  The court also noted that the City of Toledo did not oppose the state’s intervention.  Based on these points, the court granted the motion to intervene.  The State of Ohio may now make arguments and participate in the lawsuit as a full party.

Lake Erie Ecosystem and Toledoans for Safe Water are denied party status.  Days after allowing the Ohio Attorney General’s intervention, Judge Zouhary decided that neither Lake Erie nor Toledoans for Safe Water will be allowed to intervene as parties.  Much like the Ohio Attorney General, these non-parties made arguments to support both forms of intervention.  Judge Zouhary believed that neither Lake Erie nor Toledoans for Safe Water met the requirements for either form of intervention.  As for Toledoans for Safe Water, the court found that it had no right to intervene since it does not have a substantial interest in defending the charter amendment.  Just being the group that put LEBOR on the ballot is not enough.  Further, since the group recognized that its arguments about the rights of nature are novel and not currently recognized in U.S. law, allowing the party to intervene and make these arguments would cause undue delay.  As for Lake Erie, Judge Zouhary noted that the only basis for intervention cited in the motion was LEBOR itself, and that LEBOR only gave Lake Erie the right to enforce its rights in the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas.  Therefore, neither Lake Erie nor Toledoans for Safe Water will be able to participate in the lawsuit at this time.

But Lake Erie Ecosystem and Toledoans for Safe Water still want in.  Shortly after their motions to intervene were denied, Lake Erie and Toledoans for Safe Water filed two documents with the court: a motion to stay pending appeal and a notice of appeal.  First, the motion to stay pending appeal asks the court to pause the proceedings while the non-parties ask an appellate court to review Judge Zouhary’s decision.  Their hope is that no decisions would be made in their absence should the appellate court decide that their intervention should be granted.  Drewes Farm has already filed a brief in opposition to the motion to stay, which asks the court to continue the case as quickly as possible.  Second, the notice of appeal is a required notice to the court and the parties that an appeal of a judge’s decision has been made to the U.S. Sixth Circuit.  An appeal of this sort, especially one involving a discretionary act, imposes a high burden on the appellant in order to succeed.

Conference call set for Friday, May 17th regarding a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.  On May 7th, Judge Zouhary issued an order stating that the parties must submit letters in a joint filing regarding a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings.  Our case law updates often talk about motions for summary judgment, but motions for judgment on the pleadings are less frequently discussed.  Motions for judgment on the pleadings are requests for the court to make a decision after a complaint and answer (and, when allowed, a reply) have been filed.  The court can make a decision at this stage only if it finds that there is no real dispute about the facts.  The parties essentially agree about what happened, and all the court has to decide is how the law applies to the facts in the pleadings.  A motion for summary judgment generally involves the presentation of additional facts that were not included in the pleadings, but makes a similar request.  The court can grant a motion for judgment on the pleadings in part, which means that some of the case will be resolved and some will continue, but these motions can also be used to end the entire case.

It would be quite interesting to be a fly on the wall during the conference call scheduled for this Friday.  It seems likely that we will hear about it soon after.  However, this conference call does not necessarily mean that this case, or even LEBOR, will be over soon.  Stay tuned to the Ohio Ag Law Blog for more case updates.

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