Ranchers’ Long Fight Over Ditch on Last Legs

     (CN) – A California farmer must amend his claims that prosecutors improperly tried to convince the state water board to take away his water rights to a man-made irrigation ditch on his property and continued to harass him over his use of the ditch, a federal judge ruled.
     U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley ruled that the majority of Irvine and Aleta Leen’s claims against employees with the Butte County District Attorney’s Office and the California Department of Fish and Game – all of whom are named in their individual capacities – are barred by the statute of limitations.
     Irvine Leen, a farmer and rancher, grazes cattle on portions of property that he own with his wife, Aleta. An irrigation ditch, which is principally fed from agricultural runoff flowing from properties upstream, runs through their land.
     The couple has a water license issued by the California State Water Resources Control Board that allows them to divert water from the ditch to irrigate their property, the Leens say.
     After Irvine Leen cleared brush and debris from the irrigation ditch in 2002, Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey and Harold Thomas – named in the complaint as an employee of both the district attorney’s office and the Department of Fish & Game – brought criminal charges against Leen.
     The charges included unlawful obstruction of a stream, failing to obtain a streambed alteration permit, depositing silt into the irrigation ditch such that it is deleterious to fish, plants or bird life, and trespass.
     Leen accepted a pretrial diversion in 2004, stipulating that the charges would be dropped if he worked with the Department of Fish and Game to restore historical waterways and wetlands on his property. However, after Leen learned for the first time in 2006 that he possessed water rights tied to his property, he asked the court to be relieved of his obligations under the agreement.
     That same year, the Leens noticed that their water license misstated the location of the place of diversion of the ditch and applied to the water board for what they believed was a routine correction of their water license.
     The water board approved their request in early 2008 after making a site visit. However, only a few months later the Leens received a letter from the water board informing them that the approval had been rescinded.
     The Leens claim that Thomas and defendant Sandra Morey, an employee with Fish & Game, made “false statements, improper threats and demands” to the water board in connection to the water license, leading to the revocation.
     From 2006 to 2011, Thomas filed numerous writs and appeals “in a legitimate effort to prevent Mr. Leen from going to trial on his criminal charges, which was his right as a prosecutor,” according to the ruling.
     The Leens say that while the criminal investigation was ongoing, Thomas went outside of his role as prosecutor by inappropriately attempting to influence the water board’s decision regarding the water license.
     A jury acquitted Irvine Leen of all criminal charges in 2011.
     Prosecutors continued to attempt to influence the water board regarding the Leens’ water license, the Leens say, prompting them to file a lawsuit in 2012 alleging violation of their right to enjoy their property without due process of law. They also allege a violation of their right to equal protection under the law.
     The board eventually approved the Leens’ water petition in early 2013.
     The parties agree that a two-year statute of limitations applies to the Leens’ claims, but they disagree as to when the couple became aware of their constitutional injury.
     Judge Nunley was not convinced by the Leens’ argument that they were unaware of their injury until at least April 2011, following the conclusion of the criminal trial, when they learned that the water board would not immediately decide on their petition.
     Instead, Nunley credited defendants’ evidence in the form of a motion to dismiss filed by Irvine Leen in 2008 in his criminal case. In the motion, Leen’s counsel pointed to the alleged unconstitutional conduct by defendants, including accusations that they improperly convinced the water board to revoke the Leens’ water license.
     The motion also contended that prosecutors violated Irvine Leen’s right to due process under the state and federal constitutions in a deliberate and calculated effort to interfere with the administrative decision-making process of the water board.
     “Despite the similarity between these statements from 2008 and those comprising the instant cause of action, plaintiffs maintain they didn’t know of their injury until 2011. The evidence doesn’t support plaintiffs’ position. The instant lawsuit is essentially a restatement of the allegations Mr. Leen made in the 2008 motion to dismiss,” Nunley wrote.
     The Leens are not entitled to equitable tolling of their claims under the continuing violation theory, because they are alleging distinct instances where defendants allegedly provided false statements to the water board.
     Therefore, the statute of limitations bars all of the Leens’ claims relating to the prosecutors’ conduct prior to May 16, 2010.
     Rather than consider the Leens’ claims based only on the remaining allegations, Nunley provided them leave to amend their complaint to include only allegations from within the statutory period.
     Attorneys for the parties did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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