A judge has refused to dismiss a class-action lawsuit seeking more than $1 billion from Oregon’s government for insufficient logging of state forestlands.
Linn County filed a complaint in 2016 accusing Oregon’s forest managers of breaching a contract to maximize timber harvests from forests donated to the state by county governments.
According to the lawsuit, Oregon began prioritizing environmental protection and recreational values over logging due to a policy change in 1998.
The lawsuit was certified as a class action by Linn County Circuit Judge Daniel Murphy, which effectively included 14 counties and more than 100 taxing districts as plaintiffs in the case. Clatsop County commissioners voted to opt out of the lawsuit.
Attorneys for Oregon raised several grounds for dismissing the lawsuit that have now been rejected by Murphy.
The judge has ruled against the state on a particularly controversial point that’s resurfaced several times during the litigation: Whether the doctrine of sovereign immunity prohibits county governments from suing the state.
Initially, Murphy allowed the case to proceed despite the state’s sovereign immunity claim, but later issued a ruling that it’s a valid defense.
The judge withdrew that opinion and has now again rejected Oregon’s motion to dismiss, referencing his original ruling that counties can enforce their contract rights against the state government in court under these circumstances.
“He’s back to where he’s historically been in the case,” said John DiLorenzo, attorney for the county plaintiffs.
As part of the ruling, the judge also threw out Oregon’s argument that counties can’t seek to “maximize timber revenues” because that term wasn’t included in their contracts.
Oregon’s government is required to manage the forestland for the “greatest permanent value,” but this term is ambiguous and may be interpreted based on the circumstances under which the contract was made, Murphy said.
The judge also disagreed with Oregon’s attorneys that future damages in this case were “too speculative” to be decided, since “forestry experts make these estimates all the time,” and dismissed other motions filed by the state.
Frank Hammond, an attorney representing Oregon, said he cannot comment on pending litigation.
DiLorenzo, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said he’s pleased with the ruling, which removed the remaining obstacles standing in the way of a trial.
For much of the litigation, Oregon’s Board of Forestry — which oversees the defendant Oregon Department of Forestry — has treated the case with derision, DiLorenzo said.
“This should be a signal to state policymakers the court is taking this case quite seriously,” he said. “I hope this is a wake-up call the Board of Forestry might very well lose this case.”
The plaintiffs are amenable to Oregon filing an “interlocutory appeal” to challenge Murphy’s most recent ruling before the Oregon Court of Appeals, DiLorenzo said.
That way, the Court of Appeals can ensure that assumptions about sovereign immunity and other legal issues are correct before the beginning of trial, which may last a month, he said.
“From an efficiency perspective, it makes sense to get direction from the Court of Appeals first,” he said. “Everybody is going to invest a lot of time and effort in this case.”