Anti-fracking group adds claims to surveillance suit
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Opponents of hydraulic fracturing in Luzerne County can add defamation and conspiracy claims to their suit against the private surveillance company the government allegedly hired to watch them, a federal judge has ruled.
The Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition filed suit in 2010 claiming the state's former director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency's Office of Homeland Security and the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response violated the First and 14th amendments when they watched the group.
The 14th Amendment claims were dismissed last year.
But this month, U.S. District Judge William W. Caldwell of the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted the group's request to add state law claims for defamation and conspiracy.
"These claims, like the claims in the complaint, involve allegations that [Michael] Perelman and [the Institute for Terrorism Research and Response] published false statements to a third party. Both the complaint and the proposed amendments arise out of the same conduct," Judge Caldwell said, holding that the claims are not time-barred.
He also held the group is not guilty of undue delay because it complied with the court's order that it wait to file the amended claims until the earlier ruling was made.
Mr. Perelman is the president of the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, which bills itself as "an American and Israeli nonprofit corporation created to help organizations succeed and prosper in a world threatened by terrorism," according to its website.
The company has offices in Philadelphia and Jerusalem.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, though, it was incorporated as a domestic nonprofit in York in 2004 and shares an address there with the Perelman Security Group.
In fall 2009, James Powers, who has since resigned as director of PEMA's Office of Homeland Security, signed a contract with the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response for $125,000 a year, according to the complaint.
The Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition is a grassroots organization that advocates against hydraulic fracturing, a method of using water and chemicals to flushing out natural gas from deep shale formations, including the Marcellus Shale.
According to the eight-page opinion in Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition v. Powers, the coalition alleged that the institute identified it "as a potential threat and began surveillance of the organization, compiling information in tri-weekly bulletins which were provided to law enforcement agencies and 'private third-party individuals and entities.' "
Although Pennsylvania's statute of limitations for defamation claims is one year from the time that the plaintiff learns about the defamatory statements, the "plaintiff may avoid a time bar if the amendment relates back to the date of the original pleading," Judge Caldwell said. He held that the group met that standard.
Mr. Perelman and the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response were dismissed from the suit in December 2011. Because they were previously dismissed, Mr. Perelman and the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response argued that they should not have been brought back into the case, according to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
Judge Caldwell disagreed because the new claims, like the ones in the original complaint, involve allegations that Mr. Perelman and Institute of the Terrorism Research and Response published false statements to a third party.
Alan Epstein of Spector Gadon & Rosen in Philadelphia, who represents the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, said, "We'll have to wait and see what's alleged. ... We really do not believe they will be able to state a viable claim of defamation against our client."
Paul Anthony Rossi of Kennett Square, who represents the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition, could not be reached for comment.
First Published April 30, 2012 12:01 am