community rights

By: Evin Bachelor, Monday, September 16th, 2019

Farm Science Review is upon us, and we’re hoping that the low-80s forecast holds true.  In addition to checking the weather report, we’ve been monitoring the news for developments in the agricultural law world, and quizzing each other on agricultural law topics so that we’re ready to answer your questions.  While we hope you come see our presentations (speaking schedule available HERE), we won’t make you wait until you see us at the Molly Caren Agricultural Center in London to learn what we’ve found in the news.

Here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:

Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019 signed into law.  We’ve talked about this bill on the ag law blog, and now it’s official.  With the President’s signature, the debt limit for family farmers seeking to reorganize under Chapter 12 bankruptcy increases to $10 million from an adjusted $4.4 million.

No vote on community rights in Williams County, yet.  A proposed county charter for Williams County, Ohio containing language similar to the Lake Erie Bill of Rights may not make it on the November ballot.  The Ohio Supreme Court recently refused to compel the Williams County Board of Elections (BOE) to include the charter on the ballot for procedural reasons.

The charter would have declared that the people of Williams County have the right to a healthy environment and sustainable community, and that the Michindoh Aquifer and its ecosystem have the right to exist, flourish, evolve, regenerate.  Further, the aquifer would have the right of restoration, recovery, and preservation, including the right to be free from interferences such as the extraction, sale, lease, transportation, or distribution of water outside of the aquifer’s boundary.

Even though the petition to put the charter on the ballot had enough signatures, the BOE believed that the language of the charter violated Ohio law, and therefore exercised its power to reject the petition and keep it off the ballot.  The petitioners appealed the BOE’s decision to the Williams County Court of Common Pleas, and that court agreed with the BOE.  Instead of going to the Court of Appeals, the petitioners tried to go directly the Ohio Supreme Court because the BOE will soon print the November ballots.  The Ohio Supreme Court said the petitioners should have gone to the Court of Appeals first, and that it will not decide on whether the BOE has to include the charter on the ballot until the petitioners do so.

This doesn’t mean the end for the proposed charter, but rather that more court time is in the proposed charter’s future.  To read the Ohio Supreme Court’s opinion, click HERE.  To read the text of the proposed charter, click HERE.

Hemp, hemp, and more hemp.  Legal and policy updates on hemp continue to trickle down from state and federal officials.  Since our last blog post, when we released our latest law bulletin on the legal status of hemp in Ohio, there have been a couple additional developments.

One of the latest updates we’ve heard from USDA is that industrial hemp growers in states with a USDA-approved hemp production plan may apply for crop insurance to cover hemp grown for fiber, flower, or seeds starting next year.  Ohio is in the process of putting together a hemp program to send to the USDA for approval.  Ohio farmers still cannot legally grow hemp until the Ohio Department of Agriculture creates a hemp program and the USDA approves that program, but we are expecting rules to be released from those agencies in the coming weeks.  For more about the crop insurance update, read the Risk Management Agency’s press release HERE.

Closer to home, we’ve heard that the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) has requested $3.3 million from the Ohio Controlling Board for staffing along with IT equipment and support.  Further, ODA has made statements predicting that it expects to have its rule hemp program rule package ready by the end of the year.

Federal court orders U.S. EPA to reconsider Renewable Fuel Standards waivers and their impact on endangered species.  The U.S. EPA is responsible for creating fuel standards that incorporate and blend renewable sources of energy under the Clean Air Act.  These standards tell refineries how much of their fuel blend must come from renewable sources of energy; however, the U.S. EPA also has the authority to grant waivers to companies that would have difficulty meeting the standard.  The court noted that some industry groups felt that the 2018 rules were too strict, while others argued that they were too lax.  The court ended up dismissing all but one of the claims against the U.S. EPA, saying that Congress gave it discretion in developing the standards.  However, the court sent the rule back to the U.S. EPA due to an argument by environmental groups that the federal agency failed to conduct a thorough review of the risk to endangered animals, plants, and habitats under the Endangered Species Act.  Many farm groups have criticized the Trump administration’s granting of waivers for causing a reduction in demand for their products from energy companies, but it appears that they will have to make their arguments to the administration rather than to the courts.  To read the D.C. Circuit’s opinion, click HERE.

By: Evin Bachelor, Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

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.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Thursday, March 28th, 2019

The media storm that surrounded the controversial Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) has quieted, but the federal lawsuit over LEBOR has heated up.  Just a month ago, Toledo residents voted to approve LEBOR.  The measure establishes rights within the City’s charter for the Lake Erie Ecosystem to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve” as well as rights to self-government and a clean and healthy environment for the citizens of Toledo.  LEBOR states that corporations or governments that violate these rights can be liable for harm caused and also cannot use existing federal and state laws or permits in defense of the violations.   Drewes Farm Partnership filed a lawsuit in federal court the day after LEBOR passed.  The farm’s complaint asks a federal court to declare LEBOR unconstitutional on several grounds and also claims that LEBOR violates state laws.   Recent developments in the past week prompted us to provide this quick update on the lawsuit:

City of Toledo agrees to a preliminary injunction.  The court announced on March 18 that the City of Toledo agreed to the entry of a Preliminary Injunction Order.  Drewes Farm requested the injunction when it filed the lawsuit.  The court stated that the purpose of a preliminary injunction “is merely to preserve the relative positions of the parties until a trial on the merits can be held” and noted that the City of Toledo has not “commenced or initiated any action against Drewes Farms or others pursuant to LEBOR.”  Toledo therefore agreed to the injunction and to maintain its current position of not taking any action to enforce LEBOR. 

Lake Erie Ecosystem and Toledoans for Safe Water ask to join the lawsuit.    Also on March 18, two attorneys filed a motion asking the court to allow the Lake Erie Ecosystem and the Toledoans for Safe Water to “intervene” in the case as defendants.  Federal rules allow a party to file a motion to intervene and become a party to ongoing litigation as either a matter of right or with permission of the court.  The attorneys argue that the parties should be allowed to intervene as of right because they have significant legal interests that will be impaired by the case and that the City of Toledo can’t adequately represent those interests.  They also ask the court to allow permissive intervention because the parties have a claim or defense that share a common question of law or fact with the main action.  The court has asked Drewes Farm and Toledo to file briefs in response to the motion to intervene. Note that the two attorneys representing the Lake Erie Ecosystem and the Toledoans for Safe Water have worked with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the organization that assisted with the petition initiative that resulted in the adoption of LEBOR. 

Lake Erie Ecosystem and Toledoans for Safe Water file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.  On the same day as filing a motion to intervene, the attorneys also filed a motion to dismiss the case on behalf of the Lake Erie Ecosystem and Toledoans for Safe Water.  The motion argues that Drewes Farm does not have legal “standing” to bring the case, which is based upon federal constitutional law that states that a federal court cannot have jurisdiction over a case unless the plaintiff demonstrates that he or she has suffered concrete and particularized “injury in fact” that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct and that the requested remedies will redress the alleged injuries.  Lake Erie and the Toledoans for Safe Water argue that Drewes Farm has not stated a concrete injury or actual or imminent harm due to LEBOR and therefore cannot meet the standing requirement.

City of Toledo files its answer to the complaint.  Yesterday, the City of Toledo filed its answer to the complaint filed against it by Drewes Farm.  Toledo presents sixteen defenses to the farm’s allegations, which include a general denial of the complaint and other defenses based upon arguments that:  the farm does not have legal standing, has not stated a claim or stated actual or imminent harm and has based its harm on premature speculation; that the City itself is immune and has acted properly, in good faith, and as authorized or required by law to act; that the relief requested by the farm would violate the rights of the citizens of Toledo; that the farm has a duty to mitigate its damages; and that the farm failed to join necessary parties and has not stated a basis for the relief requested.   Toledo asks the court to dismiss the case and award all costs of the lawsuit to the City of Toledo.

What’s next? Now the parties must wait for the court to act on the motion to intervene, motion to dismiss, and/or the City of Toledo’s request to dismiss the case.  We’ll keep watching the case and will let you know when the court makes a ruling on any of these requests.

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