Posted by: Patricia Salkin | January 13, 2018

PA Appeals Court Holds that Mandatory Electric Pump was Least Intrusive Means for Amish Property Owners to Comply with Sewer Connection Law

This post was authored by Amy Lavine, Esq.

 

In the latest decision in a long-running dispute regarding the applicability of mandatory sewer connection regulations to Amish property owners, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled in January that a preliminary injunction was properly denied and the installation of an electric grinder pump was the least intrusive means of connection.

 

The Yoders, who were Old Order Amish, had a home in Sugar Grove Township. Although the property was subject to a mandatory sewer connection ordinance, the Yoders challenged the connection requirement as applied to their residence. In an earlier case, the trial court had ruled that the Yoders were subject the sewer connection requirement, but it refused to grant the Sewer Authority’s request to enter onto the property and install a connection. While that litigation was pending, the Yoders joined a class action challenging the constitutionality of the sewer connection ordinance, but the court dismissed their religious freedom claims in 2016. The Sewer Authority then notified the Yoders that they would have to install a grinder pump for their connection and open an electric service account to power the system. This lawsuit ensued, as the Yoders again claimed that requiring them to use electric service for a grinder pump violated their religious rights under the federal and state constitutions.

 

 

During the trial, an engineer testified for the Sewer Authority that a gravity pump would be too expensive to install, if it was even feasible, while a grinder pump system would be cost effective and would negate any topography issues. Based on this evidence, the trial court denied the Yoders’ request for a preliminary injunction and held that the Sewer Authority could install the connection in a manner in its “sole discretion.” The trial court nevertheless denied the Sewer Authority’s motion to require the Yoders to use electric service through Penelec, however, and ordered that the Yoders “shall not be compelled to open an account with Penelec or any other provider for the electrical service necessary for the installation, operation, or maintenance of the sewer connection.”

 

In an earlier appeal, the court had held that the Sewer Authority had to use the least intrusive means of connection, and it also found that the trial court erred in denying the Yoders’ request for an injunction. The case was remanded with instructions “to consider the harm of an electric connection against non-electric alternatives, and to make related findings… recognizing Owners’ right to the least intrusive means of connection.” Subsequently, the trial court assessed the six prerequisites for injunctive relief and issued an order in 2016 in which it found that the Yoders met the irreparable harm element because forcing them to use electricity would violate their religious beliefs, as well as the factors regarding maintenance of the status quo and suitability of injunctive relief. The trial court determined that the Yoders failed to establish the second factor, however, because granting the injunction would cause greater harm to the public interest than the harm to the Yoders that would be caused by denying relief, particularly in light of the fact that the Yoders used electricity on a limited basis when they deemed it necessary. The trial court also found that the Yoders failed to prove a clear right to relief because they hadn’t offered any non-electric options for complying with the connection law. The trial court then reaffirmed its initial holding that an electric grinder pump was the only feasible option and thus was the least intrusive means as well.  

 

In the 2018 decision, the court rejected the Yoders’ argument that the trial court had impermissibly questioned the sincerity of their beliefs by referring to their occasional use of electricity as a “concession.” Rather, the trial court’s 2016 order recognized that public health interests outweighed the Yoders’ religious beliefs. As the court explained, the trial court properly considered their occasional electricity use in determining that mandatory electric use would have only moderate harm.  

 

The court’s 2018 decision also affirmed that an electric pump was the least intrusive means of connection, as the evidence established that non-electric alternatives were infeasible and the trial court had not improperly discounted the sincerity of the Yoders’ beliefs. “As the only means of connection, the electric grinder pump was also the least intrusive means,” the court explained, and the Yoders’ “admission, coupled with the lack of any argument that less intrusive means are available, left the trial court no choice but to conclude that the electric grinder pump constitutes the least intrusive means for serving the compelling interest in safe and sanitary sewage disposal.” While the court did not agree entirely with the trial court’s reasoning for denying the preliminary injunction, it nevertheless found that its decision was reasonable. Accordingly, the court rejected the Yoders’ challenge regarding the denial of injunctive relief.

 

 Yoder v. Sugar Grove Area Sewer Auth., 2018 WL 297002 (Pa. Commw. 1/5/18)

 


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