Range Can Pursue Claims Against Landowner, Court Rules

Range Resources Corp. won an appeals court’s permission to pursue defamation and business disparagement claims against a Texas landowner who accused the company of fouling his well by hydraulic fracturing.

In a ruling today, the Texas Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth let stand two of Range’s claims against Steven Lipsky, who filed suit against the company in 2011 after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an administrative order saying the gas driller was responsible for contaminating Lipsky’s water with dangerous levels of methane and benzene, which can cause cancer.

Range countersued, alleging in court papers that Lipsky, his wife Shyla and a consultant, Alisa Rich, conspired to persuade the EPA, which later dropped its order, to intervene.

The company is seeking $3 million in damages. Rich and the Lipskys asked trial court judge Trey Loftin of Weatherford, Texas, to throw out the countersuit on the grounds that it violated a Texas law prohibiting so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, which bans litigation meant to stifle public protest.

The judge rejected that argument in February 2012 and the case was appealed. The appeals court ruled in August that it lacked jurisdiction to overturn the judge’s ruling. The panel instead said it was would hear a petition for an order blocking the lower court from enforcing the ruling.

Specific Evidence

“We conclude that the trial court did not clearly abuse its discretion by determining that Range had presented clear and specific evidence to establish a prima facie case for each essential element of its defamation and business disparagement claims against Steven Lipsky,” the appeals court wrote in its opinion.

The appeals panel ordered the trial court to dismiss all Range’s claims against Shyla Lipsky and Rich, the consultant. It also set aside claims of aiding and abetting and civil conspiracy against Steven Lipsky.

Brent Rosenthal, a lawyer for the Lipskys, declined to comment on the ruling.

Matt Pitzarella, a Range spokesman, said in an e-mail that the company is pleased with the ruling that it has a “valid claim against Mr. Lipsky and we look forward to the opportunity to present our case in court.”

Loftin attracted attention in May when he promoted his rulings in the case during his run for re-election in a Republican primary. He sent flyers saying he forced the EPA to back down after the agency “using falsified evidence provided by a liberal activist environmental consultant, accused and fined a local gas driller of contaminating wells.”

The Lipskys and Rich filed a motion seeking to have Loftin removed from the case because he showed bias. Loftin, who lost his primary bid, agreed to step aside in June and another judge was assigned the case.

The case in Texas state court is Lipsky v. Durant, 11-cv-0798, 43rd District Court of Texas, Parker County. The appeal is In re Steven and Shyla Lipsky and Alisa Rich, 02-12-00348-cv, Court of Appeals, Second District of Texas.

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