Staff members must be able to do their jobs
It is highly unusual for a judge to throw out a jury verdict, but a federal case from Pennsylvania demonstrates that sometimes it is absolutely crucial for a judge to do just that.
Last week three judges of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Philadelphia, upheld U.S. District Judge Joel H. Slomsky's decision to throw out a $6.5 million verdict against four staffers for the state Department of Environmental Protection's regional office in nearby Wilkes-Barre.
Judge Slomsky, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, presided over the February 2011 trial in which the jury rendered the verdict.
MFS Inc. of Bethlehem had claimed that the four DEP staffers used their enforcement power to retaliate against the company, after company representatives had contacted a state legislator to complain about a violation notice that the company had received from DEP.
The jury ruled for the company and found the staffers personally liable for amounts ranging from $500,000 to $2.6 million.
Judge Slomsky vacated the verdict, writing that it would be "unjust" to hold DEP staffers individually liable "for lawfully performing their statutory and regulatory duties."
The three-judge appellate panel agreed.
The question isn't whether environmental regulators always are correct. It's whether they should be held responsible as individuals for enforcement actions that they take as agents of the state government in a crucial area of public policy.
Environmental regulation would not simply be chilled, but rendered nearly impossible if individual inspectors suddenly were held liable for anything other than the most egregious conceivable conduct. The state government would have paid the fines for the staffers in this case had the verdict been upheld, but that would have opened the floodgates for opportunistic lawsuits against individual staffers.
Environmental regulation always is controversial across the political spectrum, in that it usually is held to be too lax or too aggressive.
The court's ruling upheld the principle that, regardless of varied perspectives on enforcement, individual staff members must have the ability to do their jobs, in accordance with state policy, without the fear of personal ruin.