Sunday, January 7, 2007

Laurel Sand & Gravel, Inc. v. Philbrick (Maryland U.S.D.C.)(not approved for publication)

Memorandum Opinion and Order dated January 3, 2007, by Judge J. Frederick Motz (not approved for publication)

In a brief letter memorandum, Judge Motz awarded a "hat trick" to the defendants, finding three separate grounds for dismissal of this case, which involved challenges by a mine owner/operator to the Maryland Dewatering Act.

The first grounds raised were based on principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel, claiming that the earlier Maryland case of Maryland Aggregates Ass'n, Inc. v. State of Maryland resolved or could have resolved the issues in this case. For res judicata claims, the federal courts are to apply the law of the state in which the prior case was heard, in this case Maryland. The court found that two of the requisite elements were not in dispute, namely that there was a final judgment on the merits and the parties were the same, and after some consideration found the final element, that the claims were substantially similar (though the court noted that, had the other bases for dismissal proved unavailing, he might have considered certifying the question to the Maryland Court of Appeals for resolution).

The second ground was that the plaintiff's claim failed as a matter of law, in that the Dewatering Act did not deprive the plaintiff of any property right in requiring the dewatering mine operator to pay for new wells for adjacent landowners presumptively affected by the dewatering operation, and the plaintiff had failed to identify any "property interest" that the state has invaded.

The third ground was a claim that the abstention doctrine of Younger v. Harris precluded the federal court from interfering with an ongoing state proceeding which involved important state interests and provided an adequate opportunity for the plaintiff to raise the federal constitutional claims advanced in the federal suit. Here, the plaintiff had admittedly failed to appeal the result of a Maryland administrative proceeding that had denied its claims, and thus voluntarily gave up the right to resolve those matters in the Maryland courts). The judge also found an important, substantial and vital state interest, even though the Fourth Circuit has not yet specifically identified regulation of water use for Younger purposes, finding at least an analogy to zoning and regulation of land use which have long been held to justify federal abstention.

The full opinion is available in PDF, as is the order.

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