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U.S. agents avoid a racketeering suit

The high court rejects a rancher's legal strategy against the BLM.

June 26, 2007|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A Wyoming rancher cannot use the federal racketeering law to seek damages against employees of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management whom he accused of harassment, the Supreme Court ruled Monday .

The unanimous decision reversed a federal appeals court ruling. The earlier ruling had government officials fearing that if the high court permitted the case to proceed, it would spawn a bevy of litigation against federal employees merely trying to do their jobs.

The court also ruled, 7-2, that the rancher, Harvey Frank Robbins, who has been in a protracted battle with BLM agents in Wyoming, could not pursue a case against the agents based on the landmark 1971 Supreme Court decision Bivens vs. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents. Bivens holds that federal officials can be sued for damages for constitutional violations, even if there is no specific statute authorizing the lawsuit.

On the Bivens claim, Robbins alleged that BLM agents violated his 5th Amendment rights by retaliating against him because he was unwilling to grant them an easement across a portion of his High Island Ranch, a guest resort stretching across 40 miles.

The BLM agents said they viewed him as a rogue rancher who would not obey the law.

Robbins drew the support of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law organization in Sacramento.

The BLM agents were supported by environmental groups, led by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, a Washington group that aids federal employees fighting legal battles stemming from actions they have taken to enforce federal laws.

The clash between the BLM agents and Robbins began soon after he purchased the ranch in 1994 from George Nelson, who had granted an easement for government officials to use and maintain the road along his property.

The BLM failed to record the easement and Robbins knew nothing about it when he bought the land.

Robbins said that soon after his purchase, BLM agent Joe Vessels told him he would have to give the agency an easement and said the government would not negotiate.

Over the next several years, Robbins was cited numerous times for his cattle trespassing on neighbors' property, for placing too many head of cattle on his federal grazing allotments, for obstructing a neighbor's use of a cattle trail and for refusing to change his grazing practices to protect drought-starved rangeland from more damage, according to federal records.

In 1998, Robbins sued the federal agents.

A federal trial judge said Robbins' suit could go forward, and a federal appeals court in Denver agreed.

In reversing the lower-court decisions, Justice David H. Souter wrote that if Robbins' case had been allowed to go forward under a Bivens theory, it "would invite claims in every sphere of legitimate governmental action affecting property interests, from negotiating tax claim settlements to enforcing Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg countered in dissent on the Bivens claim that "the record is replete with accounts of trespasses to Robbins' property, vindictive cancellations of his rights to access federal land, and unjustified or selective enforcement actions."

She and Justice John Paul Stevens said Robbins should have been allowed to go to trial on his claim that his constitutional rights had been violated.

All the justices gave a thumbs-down to Robbins' claim under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO.

On that issue, Robbins claimed that the BLM employees violated the Hobbs Act, the federal extortion law, which defines extortion as "the obtaining of property from another, with his consent ... under color of official right."

Robbins' claim failed, Souter wrote, because the act "does not apply when the national government is the intended beneficiary of the allegedly extortionate acts."

Justice Department spokesman Erik Albin said the department agreed that neither RICO nor Bivens was intended to apply in circumstances like this.

"The BLM officials in this case were promoting the public's interest," said Doug Kendall of Community Rights Counsel, an environmental advocacy group.

Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, said the ruling meant "public servants are free from the prospect of being personally sued for doing their jobs under the guise of a racketeering claim."

Robbins' longtime attorney, Karen Budd-Falen, said: "The Supreme Court majority was not interested in justice for the individual; rather, it was concerned that its decision would open the floodgates of litigation. The majority's decision gives those few unscrupulous federal employees the unlimited ability to harass private citizens without recourse."

henry.weinstein@latimes.com

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