SENECA RESOURCES CORPORATION v. HIGHLAND TOWNSHIP, ELK COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION re 11 MOTION to Intervene filed by CITIZENS ADVOCATING A CLEAN HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT, INC., CRYSTAL SPRING ECOSYSTEM. An appropriate order follows. Signed by Magistrate Judge Susan Paradise Baxter on 9/20/17. (lrw)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
HIGHLAND TOWNSHIP, et al.,
C.A. No. 16-cv-289 Erie
Magistrate Judge Susan Baxter
Motion to Intervene by CACHE and Crystal Spring Ecosystem
Plaintiff Seneca Resources Corporation (“Seneca Resources”) brought this action to
challenge the constitutionality, enforceability, and validity of the Home Rule Charter (the
“Charter”) in Highland Township. Named as Defendants to this action are: Highland Township
and the Township’s Board of Supervisors.
Pending before the Court is a motion to intervene filed by Proposed Intervenors, Citizens
Advocating a Clean Healthy Environment, Inc. (“CACHE”) and the Crystal Spring Ecosystem
(“Ecosystem”). ECF No. 11. For the following reasons, the motion to intervene will be denied.
Relevant Procedural History
Seneca Resources, a corporation engaged in oil and gas exploration and production,
initiated this action on November 30, 2016, challenging the Home Rule Charter2 which bans
In accordance with the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), the parties have voluntarily
consented to have a United States Magistrate Judge conduct proceedings in this case, including
the entry of a final judgment.
Seneca Resources’ ability to create and operate an injection well within the Township. ECF No.
1, page 1. Seneca Resources has requested that the Court strike the entire Home Rule Charter and
temporarily and permanently enjoin Highland Township and the Board of Supervisors (the
“Board”) from enforcing the Charter. Id.
CACHE and the Ecosystem seek to intervene, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule24(a), and
alternatively, Fed.R.Civ.P. 24(b), in order to defend the Charter and bring counterclaims3 against
Seneca Resources. Both Plaintiff and Defendants oppose this motion to intervene.
Intervention under Federal Rule 24
Rule 24 provides for intervention as a matter of right and permissive intervention.
Fed.R.Civ.P.24 (a) and (b).4 To qualify for intervention as a matter of right under Rule 24(a)(2),
four requirements must be met: 1) the application must be timely, 2) the applicant must have
sufficient interest in the lawsuit, 3) the interest must be affected or impaired by the disposition of
the lawsuit, and 4) the interest must not be adequately represented by an existing party. United
Seneca alleges that the Home Rule Charter is preempted by the federal Safe Drinking Water
Act and the state Oil and Gas Act, is an impermissible exercise of police power and legislative
authority, and is violative of the Supremacy Clause, the First Amendment, and both substantive
and procedural due process.
In its proposed counterclaims, CACHE and the Ecosystem allege that “through its underlying
action, Seneca seeks to invalidate the Charter: thereby violating the people’s “right to local
community self-government, “the right to clean air, water, and soil,” “the right to sustainable
energy future,” and the “right to a stable climate system.” Additionally, the Ecosystem alleges
that Seneca is violating its “right of nature,” and CACHE claims Seneca is violating the people’s
rights under Pennsylvania’s Environmental Rights Amendment. ECF No. 11-1.
The Proposed Intervenors opine that the Home Rule Charter recognizes their rights to intervene
and to enforce the Charter. Such an opinion does not make Rule 24(a)(1) available to the
Proposed Intervenors here as that provision applies only where there is “an unconditional right to
intervene” granted “by federal statute.” Id. The Home Rule Charter is not the equivalent of a
federal statute and therefore intervention as of right under Rule 24(a)(1) need not be considered
by this Court.
States v. Territory of the Virgin Islands, 748 F.3d 514, 519 (3d Cir. 2014). Additionally, it is
required that each of the four elements be met separately to intervene as of right. Id. It is the
burden of the party seeking intervention to satisfy all four requirements. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v.
Treesdale, Inc., 419 F.3d 216, 220 (3d Cir. 2005).
In contrast, permissive intervention relies upon the discretion of the Court when an
applicant “has a claim or defense that shares with the main action a common question of law or
fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 24(b)(1)(B). Important considerations for the Court in making this
determination are whether intervention would prejudice a party by delay or otherwise, and
whether intervention is necessary to protect rights that are not identical to an existing party.
Virgin Islands, 748 F.3d at 524. “The court may consider the same facts and circumstances used
to determine whether intervention was appropriate under Rule 24(a) to determine whether the
court should use its discretion to permit intervention under Rule 24(b). Community Vocational
Schools of Pittsburgh, Inc. v. Mildon Bus Lines, Inc., 2017 WL 1376298, at *8 (W.D. Pa. Apr.
17, 2017) (internal citation omitted).
The Previous Litigation
This case and the current motion closely track a previous action involving Seneca
Resources and the Defendants. See Seneca Resources Corp. v. Highland Township, C.A. No.
1:15-cv-00060. There, CACHE and the Ecosystem, along with another proposed intervenor,
attempted to intervene in an effort to defend the Township’s Community Bill of Rights
Ordinance (the “Ordinance”). Unlike the Home Rule Charter at issue in the present case, the
disputed Ordinance was passed by the former Board of Supervisors in 2013-2014. The
Ordinance prohibited the operation of underground injection control wells to dispose of waste
water from oil and gas extraction within the Township.
This Court denied the motion to intervene on the grounds that the proposed intervenors
failed to provide clear and convincing evidence to show that the Township and Board did not
adequately represent their interests. Later, the Board of Supervisors rescinded the Community
Bill of Rights Ordinance and reached a settlement that resulted in the entry of a Stipulation and
Consent Decree (“Consent Decree”). The Consent Decree entered into between Seneca
Resources and Highland Township and its Board of Supervisors specifically provided that
portions of the Community Bill of Rights Ordinance were unconstitutional, unenforceable and
invalid. Seneca Resources Corp. v. Highland Township, C.A. No. 1:15-cv-00060: ECF No. 82.
In response, the proposed intervenors appealed the denial of the motion to intervene and
the adoption of the Consent Decree, as well as motions for reconsideration of each. The Court of
Appeals for the Third Circuit held: 1) the motion to intervene to defend the Ordinance was
rendered moot by the Ordinance’s repeal; 2) district court did not abuse its discretion in denying
the proposed intervenors’ motion to reconsider the order denying their motion to intervene to
challenge the consent decree; and 3) the proposed intervenors lacked standing to challenge the
consent decree. Seneca Resources Corp. v. Township of Highland, 863 F.3d 245 (3d Cir. Jul.17,
On November 8, 2016, by popular vote, the citizens of Highland Township, adopted the
challenged Home Rule Charter pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Home Rule Charter and Optional
Plans Law, 53 Pa. C.S.A. §290. ECF No. 1-1, page 3. The Charter functions as a local
constitution and promises to guarantee and protect a range of rights, including “community and
ecosystem rights above the claimed rights of corporations and to prohibit frack wastewater
injection wells.” ECF No. 34-1, page 1. Additionally, the Home Rule Charter purports to provide
the right to self-government in the local community free from interference by the state or federal
government. ECF No. 1-1, page 5.
The Proposed Intervenors
CACHE is a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation that began forming in 2013 and was
incorporated in April 2014. It is a public interest group whose mission is to protect and secure
the rights of citizens to have clean air and pure water in their communities. Its members are
almost entirely Highland Township residents. ECF No. 12, page 13.
Crystal Spring is a natural spring in Highland Township and is connected to the residents of
James City through the Highland Township Municipal Authority’s water distribution system.
The Ecosystem encompasses the spring, as well as the surrounding hillside and riparian forest,
soils, and bedrocks, through which water flows to the water source at Crystal Spring itself. In
accordance with the Home Rule Charter, the Ecosystem seeks to intervene in this case as a real
party in interest. ECF No. 12, page 15.5
An ecosystem is not an appropriate party under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17. See Pa.
Gen. Energy Co. v. Grant Township, 658 Fed. Appx. 37 n.2 (3d Cir. 2016) (“We will refer to the
Appellants in the plural throughout this opinion, but we are, at best, dubitante, because we are
not convinced that the Little Mahoning Watershed is a proper party under Fed. R. Civ. P. 17.
[…] We do not see, however, how a watershed could be considered a proper party under Rule
17. Under that Rule, in order to be a party to a lawsuit, the purported litigant must have the
capacity to sue or be sued. On this point, the rule speaks only in terms of individuals,
corporations and others permitted by state law to sue or be sued. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(b). The
plain language of Rule 17 does not permit an ecosystem such as the Little Mahoning Watershed
to sue anyone or be sued by anyone, and for that reason alone we have misgivings with the
Watershed being listed as a party in this litigation. But, because this particular issue was not
pursued on appeal, and given the nonprecedential nature of this opinion, we make no specific
holding on the question.).”); Yamassee Indian Tribe v. Allendale County, 2014 WL 4097926 (D.
S.C. 2014) (“Rule 17 provides that an action “must be prosecuted in the name of the real party in
interest.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 17. The rule lists who may sue in their own names without joining the
At a Case Management Conference held February 17, 2017, this Court specifically
instructed the proposed intervenors to supplement the briefing to address standing and
jurisdiction. The proposed Intervenors have ignored this Court’s specific instruction to their own
peril. Until recently, the Circuit Courts of Appeal were divided on whether a prospective
intervenor of right must meet the requirements of Article III standing, with the Third Circuit
following the majority of its sister courts holding in the negative. King v. Governor of State of
New Jersey, 767 F.3d 216, 245-46 (3d Cir. 2014) (explaining split of authority, compiling cases,
and holding that intervenors “need not demonstrate Article III standing in order to intervene”). In
June, the Supreme Court resolved this split of authority by adopting the minority view and
requiring a litigant to possess Article III standing in order to intervene as of right under Rule
24(a)(2). Town of Chester, New York v. Laroe Estates, Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 137 S.Ct. 1645 (June
5, 2017). Because the briefs in this case were filed before the Supreme Court decision in Town
of Chester, the parties have not fully addressed the standing issue. 6
person for whose benefit the action is brought: (A) an executor; (B) an administrator; (C) a
guardian; (D) a bailee; (E) a trustee of an express trust; (F) a party with whom or in whose name
a contract has been made for another's benefit; and (G) a party authorized by statute. Id. Because
Yamassee Indian Tribe does not fall in any of these categories, it is not a proper party to this
action. … Because Plaintiff failed to satisfy Fed.R.Civ.P. 17 and the standing requirement, this
court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the purported claims.”); Leatherback Sea Turtle v.
Nat’l Marine Fisheries Serv., 1999 WL 33594329 (D. Hawai’I 1999)(“The court finds the plain
language of Rule 17 and the APA do not authorize the turtles to sue. They are clearly neither a
“person” as defined in the APA, nor an individual, infant or incompetent person under Rule
Unfortunately, none of the litigants have supplemented their filings since the Town of Chester
Because standing is a question of subject matter jurisdiction, if the proposed intervenors
do not have standing, the Court does not have jurisdiction and accordingly a motion to intervene
fails. See Ballentine v. United States, 486 F.3d 806, 810 (3d Cir. 2007) (“standing is a
jurisdictional matter.”); Public Interest Research Grp. of N.J., Inc. v. Magnesium Elektron, Inc.,
123 F.3d 111, 117 (3d Cir.1997) (Article III standing is a “threshold jurisdictional requirement”
for any case in federal court).
Standing “is a doctrine rooted in the traditional understanding of case or controversy. The
doctrine developed in our case law to ensure that federal courts do not exceed their authority.”
Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, ___ U.S. ___, 136 S.Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016) quoting Raines v. Byrd, 521
U.S. 811, 818 (1997). A prospective intervenor has standing when it has:
1) suffered an “injury in fact;”
2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged action of the [opposing
3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.
Id. quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992). The party invoking
federal jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing all of the elements of Article III standing.
Spokeo, 136 S.Ct. at 1547.
In the majority of standing inquiries, the question focuses on the plaintiff and “whether
the person whose standing is challenged is a proper party to request an adjudication of a
particular issue…the emphasis in standing problems is on whether the party invoking federal
court jurisdiction has ‘a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy,’” and whether the
dispute touches upon “‘the legal relations of parties having adverse legal interests.’” Flast v.
Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 99-101 (1968) quoting Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 1986, 204 (1962) and Aetna
Life Insurance Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 27, 240 (1937). However, the requirement that the
defendant have standing is relevant, especially in public interest matters.7 See Wittman v.
Personhuballah, ___ U.S. ___, 136 S.Ct. 1732 (May 23, 2016) (Article III standing required for
proposed defendant intervenor to appeal); Hollingsworth v. Perry, ___ U.S. ___, 133 S. Ct. 2652,
2655 (2013)(“Although most standing cases consider whether a plaintiff has satisfied the
requirement when filing suit, Article III demands that an ‘actual controversy’ persist throughout
all stages of litigation.”); McConnell v. FEC, 540 U.S. 93, 233 (2003) overruled on other
grounds by Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010); Diamond v. Charles, 476 U.S. 54, 68
(1986) (holding that an intervenor-defendant-appellant could not maintain a suit on his own for
lack of standing: “an intervenor’s right to continue a suit in the absence of the party on whose
side intervention was permitted is contingent upon a showing by the intervenor that he fulfills the
requirements of Article III.”).
While the question of standing in relation to a defendant is relatively uncommon, it
appears that the question most commonly occurs in cases such as Hollingsworth and the present
case before the Court – when the original defendant declines or refuses to defend a challenged
law and a certain interested party wishes to intervene on behalf of the defendant. Here, the
Township and Board have admitted to the majority of the allegations raised by Seneca
Resources, including various allegations that numerous sections of the Charter are
unconstitutional, invalid and unenforceable. ECF No. 15, pages 1-3. Further, the Township and
Board contend that neither had a say in the adoption of the disputed Charter. Id. These original
named Defendants do not show any interest in defending the Charter or continuing forward with
Matthew I. Hall, Standing of Intervenor-Defendants in Public Law Litigation, 80 Fordham L.
Rev. 1539 (2012).
the case against them. This unwillingness to defend the litigation and seek the enforcement of the
Home Rule Charter is readily apparent.8
A “generalized grievance, no matter how sincere, is insufficient to confer standing.”
Hollingsworth, 133 S.Ct. at 2662. In order to demonstrate a sufficient injury-in-fact9 to support
standing, a litigant must “claim ‘the invasion of a concrete and particularized legally protected
interest’ resulting in harm ‘that is actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.’” Prince v.
U.S. Government, ___ F.App’x ___, 2017 WL 3867814, at *1 (3d Cir. Sept.5, 2017) quoting
Blunt v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 767 F.3d 247, 278 (3d Cir. 2014). Concreteness and
particularity are separate requirements. Spokeo, 136 S.Ct. at 1548. (“Concreteness, therefore, is
quite different from particularization.”). For an injury to be particular, “it must affect the
[litigant] in a personal and individual way.” Id. Meanwhile, a concrete injury “must be ‘de facto’;
that is it must actually exist.” Id. citing Black’s Law Dictionary 479 (9th ed. 2009).
In Defendants’ Answer and New Matter, Defendants “…acknowledge that §109-110, 401 and
404-11 of the [Charter] are invalid and unenforceable…and that §501 of the [Charter] is
unconstitutional,” and by the Defendants’ affirmative defenses, claiming that both Defendants
are improper and, as such, are not properly subject to suit. ECF No. 15, pages 15-16.
Additionally, in Defendants’ Response and Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on
the Pleadings, Defendants concede that they
“are constrained to acknowledge that § § 109-110, 401, and 404-411 of the Home Rule
Charter are invalid and unenforceable as an impermissible exercise of The Township’s
legislative authority and or police powers; that § 501 of the Home Rule Charter is
unconstitutional; and that § § 103-106 of the Home Rule Charter are unconstitutional,
invalid, and unenforceable because they are inextricably intertwined with § § 109-110,
401, 404-400, and 501 of the Home Rule Charter. The Defendants further agree that
Seneca Resources Corporation is entitled to relief that is declaratory in nature and with
specific regard to those portions of the Home Rule Charter (identified above) that are
properly subject to invalidation on the basis of (where appropriate) preemption by state or
federal law; and improper exercise of municipal policy or legislative authority or
ECF No. 32, pages 6-7. See also Transcript, February 17, 2017.
The injury-in-fact inquiry is often determinative. See Toll Bros., Inc. v. Twp. of Readington,
555 F.3d 131, 138 (3d Cir. 2009).
Where, as here, the alleged injury is heightened risk of future harm, the allegations must
“entail a degree of risk sufficient to meet the concreteness requirement.” Kamal v. J. Crew Grp.,
Inc., 2016 WL 6133827, at *2 (D.N.J. Oct. 20, 2016) quoting Spokeo, 136 S. Ct. at 1550 and
citing Clapper v. Amnesty Int'l USA, ___ U.S. ___, 133 S. Ct. 1138 (2013). See also Alfa
International Seafood v. Ross, ___ F.R.D. ___, 2017 WL 1377914, at *2 (D.C.D.C. April 17,
2017) (“[W]here standing is premised on future injury, the party must demonstrate a realistic
danger of sustaining a direct injury.”).
In its brief in support of its motion to intervene, these proposed intervenors focus only on
their interests rather than any injury-in-fact. The “sufficient interest” contemplated in Rule 24 is
not equivalent to the injury-in-fact element of standing. See generally, In Re Grand Jury, 111
F.3d 1066, 1071 n.8 (3d Cir. 1997) (In a pre-Town of Chester decision, recognizing that parties
have been deemed to meet the standard for intervention under Rule 24(a)(2) though they do not
necessarily possess the requisite Article III standing, and declining to clarify the relationship
between the two inquiries). In their separate brief in support of jurisdiction, CACHE and the
Ecosystem only summarize their interests broadly: “CACHE is a community group with
members who are residents of Highland Township, some of whom own property in Highland
Township and in close proximity to Seneca’s proposed injection well” and “Crystal Spring
Ecosystem is an ecosystem within Highland Township, which has rights recognized by the
Charter and threatened by Seneca’s proposed injection well.” ECF No. 35, page 12. Despite this
Court’s express instruction to brief the issue of standing, these proposed intervenors have failed
to address the injury-in-fact element.
The only evidence produced by CACHE and the Ecosystem in support of their motion to
intervene generally are the sworn Declarations of Marsha Buhl and John Castano, long-time
residents of Highland Township. These Declarations fail to demonstrate that CACHE and the
Ecosystem have suffered “the invasion of a concrete and particularized legally protected interest’
resulting in harm that is actual or imminent” (Blunt, 767 F.3d at 278) by not being able to defend
the Home Rule Charter in this case.
Marsha Buhl declares:
5. I left Bradford [my previous home] after an oil company ruined the water
supply at my house. After the company fracked two wells less than one-half
mile from my house, the water started to come out black and smell like sulfur.
6. Despite the water coming out of the tap black, smelling like sulfur, and
stinking to high heaven, the oil company and government claimed the water
was still drinkable.
11. So I began reading, and reading, about this stuff. I have read, for example,
that for injection wells, “one well integrity violation was issued for every six
deep injection wells examined,” that many “wells showed signs that their
walls were leaking,” and that “wells are frequently operated in violation of
safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid
leakage and the threat of water contamination.” Abrahm Lustgarten, Injection
Wells: The Poison Beneath Us, ProPublica (June 21, 2012),
12. That article went on to say: “some experts see the well failures and leaks
discovered so far as signs of broader problems, raising concerns about how
much pollution may be leaking out undetected. By the time the damage is
discovered, they say, it could be irreversible.”
34. In addition to the severe consequences if Crystal Spring is contaminated,
there is the threat of spills, run-off, above and underground leakage. An
injection well would also bring more heavy trucks with threats of accidents,
industrial noise, and air pollution to our quiet community. If there’s a truck
accident, the truck could roll over and spill what it’s hauling.
35. There is also serious concern of an injection well’s impact to the wildlife
and forest. If we have a leakage, or a water spill on top, and it migrates, the
animals eat the grass, the leaves, the snow, and so if there’s a spill they’re
eating that pollution. They also breathe in any pollution. If we hurt one part of
the ecosystem, sooner or later it ends up affecting the other parts of it, too.
38. […] we need to protect our health and our future […]
39. […] we have to protect the Charter, so that we can protect our future...
ECF No. 12-1, pages 1-4. John Castano, another long-time resident of Highland Township,
10. Seneca’s plans to inject waste from oil and gas activities into an injection
well in Highland Township pose serious risks. The injection of waste threatens
the Crystal Spring and my household and drinking water. It threatens the water
relied on by my neighbors and will have a negative impact on plants and animals.
15. there have been many instances of contaminated sites in the past, many of
them recent, all attributed to human endeavors of disregard of any respect [sic] to
17. Highland Township is a small community of residents who dwell here for
many reasons but the one that is common to most if not all is the beauty ad
healthy of the surrounding environment. Eliminate that ecosystem and it becomes
just another bunch of houses in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania. At present, the
ecosystem of the township will be the envy of many other locations. How the
residents of southern California would like to be able to relay on an ample, clean
water supply not to mention the myriad other water starved areas of the globe.
Truly we are blessed. Seneca Resources threatens that state of blessedness.
ECF No. 12-3, pages 1-3.
Nothing in either of these sworn Declarations provides evidence that these proposed
Intervenors have suffered or will suffer a concrete and particularized injury-in-fact so as to have
standing here. The alleged injury is speculative, at best, and because it involves a heightened risk
of future harm, the allegations are required to “entail a degree of risk sufficient to meet the
concreteness requirement.” Kamal, 2016 WL 6133827, at *2.
CACHE and the Ecosystem’s interests in this case are based solely on their desire to
defend the Home Rule Charter. No evidence has been produced to demonstrate that any claimed
future injury is directly traceable to repealing or affirming the Home Rule Charter. Accordingly,
CACHE and the Ecosystem have failed to meet their burden to demonstrate standing for
purposes of intervention as of right.
Finally, and alternatively, these proposed Intervenors have requested that this Court grant
them permissive intervention. Because CACHE and the Ecosystem have not established
standing, this Court will deny their request for permissive intervention.
An appropriate Order follows.
/s/ Susan Paradise Baxter
SUSAN PARADISE BAXTER
United States Magistrate Judge
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