Judge dismisses farmer’s civil-rights lawsuit

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A 17th Judicial District judge dismissed a Bayou Blue cattle farmer’s civil-rights lawsuit against Lafourche Parish Government regarding the farmer’s 2008 arrest for building a temporary levee on his property near Lake Long Drive, according to court filings.

Robert Neil, 56, a cattle farmer and vice president at Bourg Dry Dock and Service, was arrested as Hurricane Ike approached in 2008 amid residents’ claims that his actions facilitated floods along a two-block stretch of Lake Long Drive. Neil said he was trying to protect his property.

The earthen berm Neil was constructing was dismantled shortly after he was detained, a sequence that Neil claims infringed his rights, flooded his property and killed his stock.

Attorneys for parish government and the sheriff’s office have maintained that authorities took action to protect the public’s welfare because Neil was in violation of a parish ordinance and his levee obstructed neighbors’ floodwater drainage, which Neil disputes. Authorities were correct in their action because the governor had called a State of Emergency, attorneys have argued.

Neil first filed suit against Parish President Charlotte Randolph, Sheriff Craig Webre and the Lafourche Parish Council one year later in September 2009.

District Judge Jerome Barbera dismissed a revised version of the lawsuit last week.

Neil will appeal the decision, he said.

Randolph said the decision sets a standard for how to respond to similar situations in the future.

“I believe this affirms the Parish Government’s obligation to protect our citizens’ rights and property when we are under a declared State of Emergency as happens when we are threatened by hurricanes, storms and other natural disasters,” Randolph said in a written statement.

Neil claims that at least 100 head of cattle died because the levee was breached and his land was inundated for 30 days.

The cattle farmer has compared utility of his makeshift levee to that of sandbags as used by residents throughout the parish.

“I could have done with sandbags like everybody else does it, but I didn’t have help to do it,” Neil said last week. “I didn’t have the manpower.”

Instead, he built a levee parallel to Lake Long Drive. Neil said he was protecting 400 acres of land, on which he had 680 head of cattle, when he built the makeshift levee within his property line.

The construction prevented nearby floodwater from receding, according to parish testimony. When a detective first arrived on scene, the water was about 5 inches high on the end of Lake Long Drive where Neil’s property is located.

Neil has already been convicted and sentenced during criminal proceedings stemming from the incident, cited as attempted obstruction of drainage, a parish ordinance.

The ordinance, which the Lafourche Parish Council passed in July of 2008, prohibits someone from obstructing “any natural or artificial drainage canal, creek, bay, or small river, or any public or private drainage.”

According to court filings and witnesses’ testimony, Neil did not interfere with a public drainage system, although deputies and public-works employees said his levee impeded the “natural flow” of rainwater from draining off of the road and neighbors’ properties. Neil’s property is 6 feet below sea level, he said.

The Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office, responding to complaints, arrested Neil after he defied orders and said he wouldn’t stop building the levee, according to filings.

A jury convicted Neil of the misdemeanor last October, and District Judge John LeBlanc ordered him to pay a $1,000 fine and serve a year of unsupervised probation in March.

In the civil lawsuit, Neil claimed that parish officials violated his civil rights when public works officials and employees “physically entered his property without his consent” and dismantled the levee he had built to protect his property. Neil was ordered at gunpoint to vacate his bulldozer, according to a deputy’s report submitted as a court filing.

He sought compensation he said was due to him because government officials wrestled away his property’s interest for the public’s sake.

“This taking although temporary was still a taking and its usage has had lasting deleterious effects,” Neil’s attorney Matthew Pepper wrote in a letter to Randolph in February 2009, according to a U.S. District Court filing. The letter requested a $415,228 settlement and threatened a $2.1 million lawsuit, which was filed seven months later.

In 2009, Neil rebuilt the levee, and he’ll continue to argue that it’s in his right to maintain the barrier, he said.

“Five months later, I put it against the fence,” he said. “It’s still there, and it ain’t ever coming down.”