State Agencies: A Tough Nut

William and Julie Ann Sarale were perturbed when PG&E suddenly began hacking down their walnut trees. PG&E had operated power lines on the grove since 1915 and never did more than keep a 10-foot clearance neatly trimmed from the trees. But in 2004, PG&E started removing whole walnut-rich branches, declaring it now needs a 20-foot clearance and too bad about the Sarales’ $150,000 reduced crop yields. You don’t like it, sue. So, off the Sarales went to court.

The Sarales were further perturbed when the San Joaquin Superior Court dismissed their lawsuit, ruling that the California Public Utility Commission has jurisdiction over the easement dispute. You don’t like it, tell the CPUC. So, off the Sarales went to the CPUC.

The Sarales were certainly quite perturbed indeed, then, when the CPUC, too, dismissed their lawsuit. “It is for the Courts, not the Commission,” said the commission to whom the courts had sent the Sarales, “to interpret easements and determine parties’ respective property rights under an easement.” So, back off to court.

This time, the Sarales skipped state court and went to federal court. We may fairly assume they were again perturbed when, after following two administrative misfires in state court and the PUC, PG&E raised yet more administrative arguments under the Rooker-Feldman and Burford doctrines. This time, the court sided with the Sarales and heard the case on the merits.

On the merits, however, the Sarales did not fare better than it had on procedure. PG&E’s easement did require it to “avoid so far as it reasonably can, interfering with the use of such lands for agriculture.” But the easement also gave PG&E “full right and liberty of cutting and clearing away all trees and brush on either side of said center line whenever necessary and proper . . . .” The Sarales argued that PG&E had managed well enough with a 10-foot clearance, and suddenly doubling that was unreasonable. The court disagreed:

While PG&E’s earlier practice of trimming the trees to a ten (10) foot clearance may have interfered less with agriculture, their policy to increase trimming to twenty (20) feet of clearance is not unreasonable. Trees coming into contact with power lines present a significant danger, not only of power outages, but of fire.

And because PG&E was operating under the terms of the easement, there was also no trespass, unconstitutional taking, or civil-rights violation.

Still, it should not take three lawsuits to get the two sentences of analysis resolving the dispute. We should all be perturbed.