Judge narrows injunction secured by Cabot Oil & Gas against northern Pa. anti-fracking activist

By Jon Campisi | Apr 1, 2014

A northern Pennsylvania grandmother will once again be able to visit her

grocery store and other establishments after a state judge eased restrictions on where the anti-fracking activist could go following an injunction secured by a gas company.

Susquehanna County Common Pleas Court Judge Kenneth Seaman last week narrowed the injunction that had been placed against Vera Scroggins following a civil action commenced by Texas-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.

Attorneys representing the 63-year-old grandmother of two had argued that the injunction, which barred Scroggins from land where Cabot had a lease to extract natural gas from underneath the surface, was too broad and violated the woman’s First Amendment rights.

Some of the locations covered by the injunction included the grocery store at which Scroggins does her shopping, the homes of some of the woman’s friends and the nearest hospital.

The judge decided to narrow the injunction to no longer include properties on which Cabot has mineral leases but has no active drilling operations.

“This is a big step in the right direction,” Scroggins, who lives in Brackney, Pa., said in a statement released by her attorneys. “I am much better off today than I was yesterday in terms of where I can go.”

The original injunction, which was entered in the fall of 2013, applied to more than 300 square miles, with the latest judicial order only barring Scroggins from Cabot-owned properties and from within 100 feet of any active well pad or the access roads associated with them, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which worked on the woman’s behalf.

ACLU of Pa. Legal Director Witold J. Walczak and Sayre, Pa. attorney Gerald A. Kinchy worked on the case, as did attorneys from the Washington, D.C.-based legal advocacy group Public Citizen.

“Today’s ruling is a big victory for Vera and for advocates everywhere,” Scott Michelman, a Public Citizen attorney who argued the motion to vacate the injunction last week, said in a statement. “We obtained most of what we wanted from this motion to vacate, and also beat back Cabot’s suggestion to impose buffer zones of as much as 500 feet on Ms. Scroggins. Today’s ruling shows that big gas companies like Cabot can’t punish advocates for their speech.”

Michelman added that he and his legal team have concerns that the 100-foot buffer zone sweeps too broadly into areas open to the public where Scroggins might engage in activities protected by the Fist Amendment.

“We’ll be considering how best to address those concerns at trial on May 1,” he said.

Court records show that Scroggins, a retired nurse’s aid who spends much of her time as a citizen-journalist and anti-drilling advocate, was sued by Cabot for civil trespass relating to the woman’s activities.

The trial court entered its ruling in favor of the gas company in mid-October 2013.

The woman’s attorneys wrote in a legal brief filed in early March that the injunction has had a significant effect on both Scroggins’ advocacy and personal life.

“Accordingly the injunction obstructs Scroggins’ information-gathering, public education, and advocacy activities,” the lawyers had written. “Because she has not been given a list of the places from which she is forbidden, Scroggins has had to spend hours at the courthouse learning who owns and leases various properties, and she is anxious that she will accidentally go where she is forbidden.”

As a result of the injunction, the attorneys wrote, their client was no longer able to visit her usual grocery store, a rehabilitation center, her eye doctor, several restaurants, a hardware store, an auto repair shop and the county recycling center.

She was also unable to go to her nearest hospital in the event of an emergency, since the Endless Mountains Health Systems Hospital in Montrose, Pa. was on the list of banned places.

“Additionally, the rights of landowners in the county have been restricted, including friends who would invite Scroggins to their homes but for the injunction and small business owners who are deprived of Scroggins’ business because of the injunction,” the March legal filing stated. “Scroggins is barred from these properties even though there are no active drilling sites on the surface of these lands.”

Scroggins, like other environmentalists, opposes the drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into the shale formations under the ground in order to extract natural gas.

Those who oppose this drilling method contend it has a detrimental impact on the environment.

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