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U.S. v. Brace

filed: November 22, 1994.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLANT
v.
ROBERT BRACE; ROBERT BRACE FARMS, A PENNSYLVANIA CORPORATION



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civil No. 90-cv-00229E).

Before: Becker and Cowen, Circuit Judges and Pollak*fn* , District Judge.

Author: Cowen

Opinion OF THE COURT

COWEN, Circuit Judge.

The United States brought this action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against Robert Brace, individually, and Robert Brace Farms, Inc., a Pennsylvania corporation (collectively, "Brace" or "defendants"), alleging violations of the requirement in Section 404 of the Clean Water Act ("CWA"), 33 U.S.C. § 1344, that a permit be obtained for the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States. The United States sought restoration of the site, a permanent injunction and civil penalties pursuant to 33 U.S.C. § 1319(d).

The district court bifurcated the action: a trial on liability issues and a trial on remedy issues. Shortly before the liability trial, Brace stipulated that at the time of the discharges, "the approximately thirty-acre site that is the subject of this lawsuit was wetlands as defined at 33 C.F.R. § 328.3(b) and 40 C.F.R. § 232.2(r)." Pre-Trial Stipulation (Dec. 16, 1993); Appendix ("App.") at 40.

The United States, either by stipulation or at trial, established the five elements of a prima facie case for violations of Section 404 of the CWA: (1) defendants admitted that they are "persons" within the meaning of the CWA; (2) defendants admitted that the activities at the site were conducted without a permit; (3) defendants stipulated that the site was a wetland at the time of the discharges; (4) the district court held that the site constituted waters of the United States at the time of defendants' activities; and (5) the district court held that defendant's clearing, mulching, churning, and levelling of the formerly wooded and vegetated site constituted a discharge of pollutants into the waters of the United States and that defendants paid for excavation and installation of drainage tubing in an effort to drain the site.

Brace asserted, and the district court held, that the discharges were exempt from the permit requirement under Section 404(f)(1). The court concluded that: (1) Brace's activities on the wetland constituted "normal farming activities" exempt under Section 404(f)(1)(A); and (2) Brace's activities constituted "upland soil and water conservation practices" also exempt under that same provision of the CWA. United States v. Brace, C.A. No. 90-229 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 16, 1993), slip op. at 22-23. In addition, the court found that Brace's conduct in "preserving and regularly cleaning the existing drainage system on the site" was exempt from the permit requirement as "maintenance of the drainage system" under Section 404(f)(1)(C). Id. at 23. The court also held that the recapture provision of Section 404(f)(2) does not apply to this case because "the land is not being converted to a use to which it was not previously subject, nor has significant impairment to the reach or flow of waters been proven." Id. at 22.

The district court entered judgment in defendants' favor. We hold that the district court incorrectly applied the requirements of the CWA permit exemption provisions. We will reverse the order of the district court and remand the case to determine the appropriate remedy.

I.

Brace is a farmer who owns approximately 600 acres of real property in Erie County, Pennsylvania, including the subject thirty-acre wetland site ("the site"). Brace Farms, Inc. is a Pennsylvania corporation engaged principally in the farming business. Brace's parents and other family members have always earned their principal livelihood from farming activities. Brace purchased a parcel of farm property from his father in 1975. A portion of that property contains the site. The property has been in the Brace family since the 1930's when Brace's grandfather farmed the land. Prior to 1975, Brace's father used the site for pasturing of cows and horses, and Brace's brother used the site for pasturing cows until 1976.

Brace purchased the property from his father with the intent of continuing and improving his father's established farming operation. It was Brace's intention to integrate the various portions of the property into an overall operation for an effective and productive farming business. At the time Brace purchased the property containing the site from his father, the site was vegetated with areas of scrub brush, including red brush and briars.

In 1977, Brace sought the advice and assistance of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service ("ASCS") as part of his plan to develop an integrated farming operation on the property that includes the site. The ASCS is "an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture which is generally responsible for administering commodity production adjustment and certain conservation programs of the Department." 7 C.F.R. § 12.2(a)(2) (1994). Brace's father had previously worked with the ASCS to prepare a drainage plan relating to the site for the purpose of farming the entire property. At the time he purchased the property from his father, Brace obtained and utilized the soil and conservation plans that had been prepared for his father by the ASCS. The drainage system impacts the ability to produce crops on all parts of Brace's property.

The existing drainage system was in poor condition and not yet complete at the time of Brace's acquisition. Brace began cleaning the system in 1976 in order to improve upon the existing system and make it effective for agricultural development. In the following years, Brace maintained and improved the drainage system pursuant to the plan recommended by the ASCS. From 1977 to 1985 the ASCS periodically visited the site and provided technical assistance and cost-sharing arrangements to Brace.

As of 1977, the essential portions of Brace's improvements to the existing drainage system were intact and operating. Brace's work in improving upon the interconnected drainage system progressed continuously from 1977 to 1987, as time, funds and equipment were available. If the necessary funds had been available to him in 1977, Brace would have expedited his farming plans and completed the project at that time. As a result of Brace's efforts, by the end of 1979 the site was dry, with the exception of times of excessive rainfall.

Brace cleared, mulched, churned, levelled, and drained the formerly wooded and vegetated site from 1985 through 1987. In 1986 and 1987, Brace paid for excavation in the site and the burying of plastic tubing or "drainage tile" in an effort to drain the site. Throughout the 1980's, Brace used appropriate equipment to remove unconsolidated soil, pebbles, silt, and growth which were impeding water flow. Farmers in the area typically engaged in such practices.

As a result of Brace's levelling, spreading, and tiling, Brace began to grow crops on the site in 1986 and 1987. Brace did not have a permit issued pursuant to Section 404 of the CWA authorizing his activities.

The United States became aware of Brace's activities in 1987. During 1987 and 1988, the United States issued three orders to Brace, directing him, inter alia, to refrain from further disturbing the site, so that it could naturally revegetate with indigenous plant species. After the issuance of these orders, Brace continued to mow vegetation on the site. In October of 1988, Brace received an administrative complaint in connection with his farming activities on the site. Brace requested a hearing to contest the complaint, believing that his activities were exempt from any and all permit requirements. Prior to the hearing, the complaint was dismissed.

In the summer of 1988, Brace approached the ASCS in order to gain the status of "commenced conversion from wetlands" prior to December 23, 1985 with respect to the site. The ASCS was authorized to make such a determination under the Food Security Act of 1985, 16 U.S.C. §§ 3801, et seq. This Act contains a provision, referred to as the "Swampbuster," which denies certain Department of Agriculture benefits to farmers who produce an "agricultural commodity on converted wetland," unless such conversion commenced before December 23, 1985. 16 U.S.C. §§ 3821, 3822 (1988 & Supp. V 1993).

The ASCS granted the status to the site, finding that Brace's on-going farming activities had commenced prior to December of 1985, which would enable Brace to complete conversion and produce an agricultural commodity without losing USDA benefits. Letter from Erie County ASCS Office to Robert Brace (9/21/88); App. at 172. However, the ASCS expressly noted that "the granting of a commencement . . . request does not remove other legal requirements that may be required under State or Federal water laws." USDA Form; App. at 173.

In April 1990, as a cautionary measure, Brace approached the Army Corps of Engineers ("COE") in an effort to obtain an after-the-fact permit to conduct his farming activities on the site, despite his belief that the activities were exempt from the permit requirements of the CWA. The United States Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") requested that the COE not review an application from Brace for an after-the-fact permit. Brace was advised that because the matter was then in litigation, the government would not act on his request for a permit. Since the time of the cease and desist orders Brace has terminated farming activity on the site except for routinely mowing the vegetation.

II.

The district court exercised its jurisdiction pursuant to 33 U.S.C. § 1319(b) (1988) and 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1345, 1355 (1988 & Supp. V 1993). Our jurisdiction rests on 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1988).

Presently, there are three issues before us. The first issue is whether the district court erred in determining that Brace's discharges of dredged and fill material into the wetland were exempt from the permit requirement pursuant to Section 404(f)(1) of the CWA, 33 U.S.C. § 1344(f)(1). The second issue is whether the district court erred in determining that Brace's discharges were not "recaptured" by the permit requirement under Section 404(f)(2) of the CWA, 33 U.S.C. § 1344(f)(2). We have plenary review over the question of whether the district court erroneously interpreted the meaning of the applicable statutes. Moody v. Sec. Pac. Business Credit, Inc., 971 F.2d 1056, 1063 (3d Cir. 1992); Manor Care, Inc. v. Yaskin, 950 F.2d 122, 124 (3d Cir. 1991). To the extent that the court's ruling on these issues was also premised on findings of fact, we review any such findings under the clearly erroneous standard. Zenith Radio Corp. v. Hazeltine Research, Inc., 395 U.S. 100, 108, 89 S. Ct. 1562, 1568, 23 L. Ed. 2d 129 (1969); Sheet Metal Workers Int'l Ass'n Local 19 v. 2300 Group, Inc., 949 F.2d 1274, 1278 (3d Cir. 1991).

The third issue is whether the district court erred in determining that Brace was not subject to liability for violations of administrative orders. Our review of questions of law such as this is plenary. ...


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