Chief Gathering Counter-Sues 3 Families in Luzerne County, PA

In a country with a proud tradition of free speech and open dissent, there is a line that can be crossed. That line is called libel and slander, and it’s always been a gray area, most often determined by the courts. We have a new case for the courts to decide related to the Marcellus drilling industry in Luzerne County, PA.

But this is not solely a case of slander. The people accused of slandering pipeline company Chief Gathering first filed a lawsuit themselves in an attempt to use the courts to stop the pipeline. So Chief is fighting back with their own lawsuit seeking to a) have the original lawsuit filed against the pipeline overturned, and b) seeking damages for the (according to Chief) slanderous remarks of the people and their attorney. Chief says their reputation in the community has been wrongly damaged.

Attorneys for a Chief Gathering LLC, which is seeking to install a pipeline in Dallas Township, filed a federal lawsuit seeking close to $20 million in damages from three families the company claims interfered in the project without grounds and damaged the company’s reputation in the community.

Chief, a Texas-based natural gas company, plans to build a 24-inch gathering line to transport gas extracted from wells in Susquehanna County to the Transco interstate pipeline, connecting at a point near the Dallas School District Campus in Dallas Township.

The complaint claims that a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Luzerne County Court by William and Patricia Watkins, Scott and Kelly Watkins and Jeffrey and Jo Ann Dickson, all residents of the Goodleigh Estates development in Dallas Township, has delayed the project without grounds.

The pipeline is planned to pass through Goodleigh Estates beneath the properties of Tuula D’Anca and Patrick and Patricia Dougherty. The Watkins and Dickson families filed suit against D’Anca, who they allege violated neighborhood covenants by signing a pipeline right-of-way agreement.

Chief claims the Goodleigh Estates covenants do not prohibit or specifically address underground gas pipelines and that the pipeline and its construction would not constitute a nuisance, as alleged in the Watkins/Dickson suit.

The company alleges the Dickson and Watkins families are using the covenants to delay and eventually halt the pipeline project, and Chief is seeking a declaratory judgment in that dispute.

Chief contends the families have caused “torturous interference” in their contract relations with right-of-way lease holders.

“The Dickson/Watkins Defendants’ true goal is to stop Chief Gathering from installing a pipeline not just in Goodleigh Estates, but in any location in Dallas Township,” the suit alleges. “The Dickson/Watkins Defendants’ arguments about the supposed violation of restrictive covenants for Goodleigh Estates is simply a ruse to effect Dickson/Watkins Defendants’ overall scheme to thwart Chief Gathering from conducting its lawful business in Dallas Township.

“Even after Chief Gathering began contracting for an alternate route that would not go through Goodleigh Estates, the Dickson/Watkins Defendants conspired to find the location for the Alternate Route and to block it.”

Chief further alleges that the families maliciously disparaged the company’s reputation through statements their attorney, Robert Schaub of Rosenn, Jenkins & Greenwald, made in published newspaper articles. The company is seeking punitive damages.*

*Wilkes-Barre The Times Leader (Sep 23, 2011) – Gas firm’s suit targets 3 families