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Smith v. Central Platte Natural Resources District

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

February 1, 2016

KELLY L. SMITH & KARLA G. SMITH, Plaintiffs,
v.
CENTRAL PLATTE NATURAL RESOURCES DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

John M. Gerrard United States District Judge

This matter is before the Court on the plaintiffs' motion for default judgment (filing 51) and the defendants' motion to dismiss the amended complaint (filing 45). For the reasons discussed below, the Court will deny the motion for default judgment, will stay this matter pursuant to Younger abstention, and will deny the defendants' motion to dismiss without prejudice to reasserting the arguments contained therein.

BACKGROUND

The plaintiffs Kelly L. Smith ("Kelly") and Karla G. Smith ("Karla") are married, and reside in Nebraska. Filing 36 at 3. They own land in Custer County, Nebraska. Filing 36 at 3. The defendant Central Platte Natural Resources District (CPNRD) is a Nebraska political subdivision. Filing 36 at 3. The other defendants in this matter are either board members or employees of CPNRD. See filing 36 at 4–6. The plaintiffs have brought this suit against the defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of their constitutional rights, as well as violations of their statutory rights under the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, and the Food Conservation and Energy Act, 7 U.S.C. § 8791. Filing 36 at 2.

The plaintiffs' allegations are as follows. On January 6, 2006, CPNRD imposed a permanent stay on new irrigated land in the district in which the plaintiffs' land is located. Filing 36 at 6. In essence, only land with a history of irrigation can be certified as irrigated land, and land not certified as irrigated cannot be developed for irrigation. Filing 36 at 8. The plaintiffs take issue with several aspects of CPNRD's imposition and enforcement of the stay. As an initial matter, they allege that CPNRD failed to comply with various statutory requirements related to imposing irrigation stays. Filing 36 at 6–7.

The plaintiffs also allege that CPNRD committed various improprieties in enforcing the stay against the plaintiffs' land. First, they contend that CPNRD incorrectly refused to certify certain portions of their land as irrigated. See filing 36 at 8. In 2006, the plaintiffs received a letter asking them provide CPNRD with certain Farm Service Agency (FSA) records, so that CPNRD could determine which portions of the plaintiffs' land should be certified as irrigated. Filing 36 at 7. According to the plaintiffs, Kelly met with non-party Kevin Gill, an employee of the United States Department of Agriculture and a representative of CPNRD, to discuss the certification. Filing 36 at 7. Gill informed Kelly that only those portions of land that the FSA documents indicated had a history of irrigation could be certified as irrigated. Filing 36 at 7–8. All other portions of land would be subject to the stay on new irrigation. See filing 36 at 7–8. Though Kelly protested both the requirement that he provide his FSA records, as well as the application of the stay to certain portions of his land, he signed a document agreeing to the certification. Filing 36 at 8. According to the plaintiffs, Gill told Kelly that if he failed to do so, he would be fined up to $5, 000 per day. Filing 36 at 8. Karla, who was apparently not present, did not sign the document. Filing 36 at 8.

In 2012, the plaintiffs developed a portion of their land that they contend has always been irrigated, but which was apparently not certified as such. See filing 36 at 9. Kelly reported the development to CPNRD, and was informed that he would be required to complete a variance request. Filing 36 at 9. In May 2012, Kelly met with defendant Jesse Mintken, a CPNRD employee, to complete that request. Filing 36 at 9. Mintken informed Kelly that, due to the stay, the plaintiffs would be required to "trade" 1.5 acres of their certified irrigated land for each acre of the newly developed land. Filing 36 at 9. The plaintiffs would then be permitted to irrigate the newly developed land, but not the "traded" certified land. See filing 36 at 9. Additionally, because of the soil classification of the newly developed land, Mintken informed Kelly that he would have to seed it with particular grasses. Filing 36 at 9.

Kelly disagreed with these conclusions. Filing 36 at 9. As a result, he alleges, Mintken became physically and verbally threatening toward him. Filing 36 at 9. Mintken did not complete the variance on that date, but later sent the plaintiffs a document relating to the transfer. Filing 36 at 9. The plaintiffs signed the document and returned it to Mintken. Filing 36 at 10. However, the plaintiffs allege that the document did not contain certain information relevant to the transfer, including information about the soil classification and the trade of certified irrigated land for newly developed land. Filing 36 at 10.

The plaintiffs allege that this transfer was designed with the purpose of hindering their ability to use their certified irrigated land. Filing 36 at 12. According to the plaintiffs, when CPNRD determined which portions of the plaintiffs' certified irrigated land would be "traded" for the newly developed land, CPNRD selected acres that were unusually inconvenient for the plaintiffs. See filing 36 at 12. The plaintiffs became aware of this circumstance when Kelly Smith called CPNRD to protest the alleged unfair treatment of his neighbor. See filing 36 at 11–12. During the call, defendant Luke Zakrzewski, a CPNRD employee, informed Kelly that the plaintiffs had violated the transfer by irrigating portions of the land they were not permitted to irrigate. Filing 36 at 12. Zakrzewski sent the plaintiffs a copy of the transfer, which contained full information about which land was permitted to be irrigated, and a letter instructing the plaintiffs how to comply with the transfer. Filing 36 at 12.

On July 5, 2013, Kelly filed a request with CPNRD to appeal its certification determination. Filing 36 at 13. After a hearing, the appeal was denied. Filing 36 at 13. In September 2013, Kelly visited the CPNRD office to copy his file, and discovered that CPNRD was in possession of FSA reports relating to the plaintiffs' land. Filing 36 at 14. Zakrzewski allegedly informed Kelly that the USDA had sent the information. Filing 36 at 14. This was, the plaintiffs allege, a violation of a district court ruling that the USDA was not permitted to disclose the FSA records to CPNRD. Filing 36 at 8–9.

Later that year, on October 25, 2013, Kelly received notice in the mail of a formal hearing before the CPNRD board to determine whether Kelly had violated CPNRD's rules and regulations. Filing 36 at 14. Karla did not receive notice. Filing 36 at 14. The hearing took place on November 21, 2013. Filing 36 at 15. Zakrzewski testified that satellite images taken in the fall of 2012 demonstrated that the plaintiffs watered land that was subject to the stay. Filing 36 at 15. The CPNRD board voted to issue Kelly a cease-and-desist order, but, according to plaintiffs, did not include Karla. Filing 36 at 15–16. In addition, the defendants served Kelly, but not Karla, with the order. Filing 36 at 16.

Kelly was ordered to provide offsets for newly irrigated land by ceasing irrigation on other portions of land. Filing 36 at 16. He was to change the classification for that land from irrigated to non-irrigated with the FSA. Filing 36 at 16. And he was ordered to provide documentation of the classification change to CPNRD as proof of compliance. Filing 36 at 16. In addition, in March 2014, the plaintiffs discovered that the defendants sent documents to the Custer County Assessor's office with instructions to reclassify certain portions of the plaintiffs' land from irrigated to non-irrigated usage. Filing 36 at 17.

Then, on December 5, 2014, CPNRD filed a civil complaint in Custer County district court against both plaintiffs for alleged violations of the cease-and-desist order. Filing 36 at 18. That lawsuit is apparently pending now. The plaintiffs further allege that the defendants' actions were motivated by dislike of Kelly, and that CPNRD has not enforced its stay or other rules against other individuals in CPNRD's jurisdiction. Filing 36 at 19–20.

The plaintiffs allege various injuries as a result of the defendants' alleged actions, including: violations of their constitutional and statutory right to privacy, right to use water, right to engage in their chosen profession, right of procedural due process, various statutory rights, and the right to have their land certified as irrigated. Filing 36 at 21. The plaintiffs seek relief in the form of: an injunction staying the cease-and-desist order, fair market value for the right to irrigate 270 acres of land, a cease-and-desist order prohibiting the defendants from "further harassment and interference, " damages for the plaintiffs' humiliation and emotional harm, costs of maintaining the present action, punitive damages, an ...


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