Judge denies county motion to dismiss suit
WILLIAMSPORT - The federal lawsuit against Northumberland County and Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy on a Sunshine Law violation should continue, a U.S. Magistrate Judge recommended Monday.
The 20-page opinion from Judge Martin C. Carlson said the motion made by the defendants to dismiss an amended complaint by plaintiff David Kaleta, of Shamokin, who filed a lawsuit over issues related to the county's Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA), be denied.
In their motion to dismiss, the county's attorneys said that although a state court has already found that Kaleta is likely to prevail on the merits of his claims, the amended complaint "nevertheless actually fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Carlson disagreed and found that Kaleta has adequately pleaded claims for relief under both the Sunshine Act and the First Amendment.
The judge wrote in his opinion that what the defendants are attempting to do "is move the court to enter summary judgment in its favor rather than arguing that dismissal is appropriate on the amended complaint itself.
"In this regard, we note that the defendants rely almost exclusively on evidence that was taken before the state court during a hearing held on the plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction on which the plaintiff actually prevailed; but now, before this court, the defendants argue that the same evidence taken by the state court should actually result in the preliminary dismissal of the plaintiff's claims."
The recommendation states that the issue of granting summary judgement in favor of the county should not be heard at this time.
He said the motion to dismiss was focused on the alleged insufficiency of the amended complaint, "but they offer nothing to show that the allegations themselves are inadequate."
Kaleta, who has been critical of the county plans to build the 6,500-acre recreational area on forest and abandoned coal lands in Coal, East Cameron, Mount Carmel, West Cameron and Zerbe townships, was informed in a Sept. 10 letter from county planning director Pat Mack that his request to use the land for hunting and walking his dog had been denied after consideration by "two of three members of the board of commissioners," later determined to be Bridy and Clausi.
Kaleta, claiming the discussion to deny his permit is a violation of the Sunshine Act, won a preliminary injunction in Northumberland County Court.
With Kaleta alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights, the case was moved to federal court.
Carlson relates in his report that if the court adopts Monday's recommendation to dismiss the county's motion, neither side would be kept from filing additional motions based on relevant evidence found during discovery, to give the court more information as to whether a trial is needed.
The report marks the third filing in the case in the past seven days. On Monday, Carlson denied a motion by Clausi and Bridy that sought to have Kaleta's attorneys, Kymberley Best and Timothy Bowers, disqualified because they dealt with administration and legal issues related to the AOAA during their time as Northumberland County employees. Carlson said Best and Bowers' prior representation of the county had little to do with issues in Kaleta's suit.
On Thursday, the judge threw out a protective order asked for by Kaleta to keep audio recordings of past Northumberland County commissioners meeting, after the plaintiff had been directed to file a brief in support of his motion by April 18. Since the time to file the court documents passed, Carlson withdrew and dismissed the motion.