Coal company seeks to silence couple’s complaints

Tuesday, February 17, 1998

WISE, Va. (AP) — David Rouse and Darlene Wilson thought they were within their rights to complain about blasting at a nearby coal mine that rocked their home, cracked its walls and foundation and knocked objects off tables.

They took pains to stay within the legal guidelines for filing their complaints, even though it got them nowhere. But the mining company, A&G; Corp., decided it had heard enough and filed a lawsuit alleging the couple had beset them with constant frivolous complaints.

Legal scholars say the case is a perfect example of a SLAPP lawsuit—a strategic lawsuit against public participation—designed to prevent citizens from speaking out.

The couple has filed 63 complaints with state officials since 1995 over claims that blasting by A&G; damaged their home. In each case, the state found that the strip-mining company did not violate state regulations.

Rouse and his wife say the company blasts from two to six times a day, jarring their house and everything inside.

That prompted the couple to go to the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, which told them how to fill out a complaint. Each time the strip-mining company’s actions disturbed their home, the couple has filed a complaint.

In December 1996, the company struck back. It sued the couple for $75,000, claiming they harassed the company with “frivolous and excessive complaints.” A&G; said the couple’s complaints forced it to “expend over 200 hours to attend public meetings and defend its actions against all these frivolous appeals costing the plaintiff over $20,000 in expenses and lost revenue,” according to the suit filed in Wise County Circuit Court in December.

Wilson said she was shocked and frightened by the lawsuit. “We were hit with it right before Christmas. It kind of messes up your holidays,” she said.

Robert D. Richards, a professor at Penn State, said it’s the couple’s constitutional right to petition the government for a redress of their grievances, and they can do so as often as they like. Richards is director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment.

“The company had already won the situation in the proper forum; they didn’t need to go into the courtroom,” said Richards, “Besides, this is a First Amendment right; there is no number on the amount of times you can use it.”

Daniel R. Bieger, an Abingdon lawyer who sued for A&G;, said the couple has abused the system.

“They (Rouse and Wilson) have taken unfair advantage of the rights citizens have,” he said. “We think that they don’t have any good faith, because their complaints don’t have any validity.”

Rouse, a professor of philosophy at Clinch Valley College, bought three acres in 1983, believing the area had been mined out, and built a home.

In early 1991 another mine was started in the area, and in 1995 A&G; expanded its operations to within about one-half mile of the couple’s property. Disturbed by the noise and vibrations, the couple talked with neighbors, many of whom had similar complaints.

“They told me that we’re just going to have to get used to it,” said Wilson, a graduate student in American history at the University of Kentucky.

Penelope Canan, a professor at the University of Denver who co-wrote a study on SLAPP lawsuits and helped coin the term, said coal companies originated SLAPP in the 1970s after Congress passed new laws opening the government up to more citizen involvement.

“These suits aren’t even designed to win in court—95 percent are dismissed or dropped,” she said. “They’re designed to not only keep the SLAPPee from filing a complaint or speaking out, but their neighbors as well. It effectively kills opposition, since people are fearful that if they speak out, they get sued.”

The lawsuit has worked, Rouse and Wilson said.

“That was the intended effect, to chill any sense of community against strip mining. The lawsuit put an end to that. Our phone has stopped ringing,” Wilson said.