A Mexican federal district court hearing set for Wednesday has been postponed after the judge in the case removed himself from the proceeding involving Sempra Energy's North Baja California liquefied natural gas (LNG) receiving terminal and a disgruntled adjacent landowner, a San Diego-based Sempra spokesperson told Daily GPI Monday.

In yet another development, last Tuesday the disgruntled former landowner, Ramon Eugenio Sanchez Ritchie, filed a new legal action against Sempra in the U.S. District Court in San Diego, seeking compensatory and punitive damages and earnings from Sempra's Energia Costa Azul LNG terminal. Sanchez Ritchie bases his latest lawsuit on allegations that he was wrongfully evicted from the adjacent property near the LNG terminal site.

On July 6 a hearing in a federal district court in Mexico ruled in Sempra Energy's favor but did not end the bitter legal dispute. The would-be landowner continues to seek 250 acres adjacent to the site that he claims to own (see Daily GPI, July 9). The court so far has refused to suspend the LNG plant's operating permits, but ordered another court hearing, which is set for Aug. 5.

With the judge excusing himself, there is still no ruling on the plaintiff's "amparo," which is a Mexican legal filing asking a court to take some action against another party. It is a constitutional rights challenge, according to the Sempra spokesperson.

"The Mexican district judge has sought to be excused from hearing the case, and has ordered the July 28 hearing [to] be postponed pending the federal appellate court's decision on his request," the Sempra spokesperson said. In regard to this part of the legal maneuverings, Sempra faces the possibility of losing its Mexican operating permits for the LNG terminal if the amparo is granted by the court.

Whether the amparo is granted or denied, however, both sides have the right to appeal under the Mexican legal process, the Sempra spokesperson said.

In the other legal action in Mexico, Sanchez Ritchie has sought to have the Sempra operating permits suspended pending the outcome of the amparo, but on a limited basis the suspension request was denied July 6, and the Aug. 5 hearing was set to consider responses from several Mexican regulatory agencies, the major one being Comision Reguladora de Energia, the Mexican federal energy regulatory commission, or "CRE." The court can then affirm or deny the plaintiff's request based on input from CRE and other Mexican regulators.

Sempra's response to the court action in a San Diego federal court filing reiterated its charge that the plaintiff and his financial backers are attempting "to extract money from [Sempra] and disrupt [the LNG plant] operations.

"He is a squatter who has never shown any evidence that he either purchased or holds title to the disputed property, and his claim that the parcels are required for the operation of Energia Costa Azul is false," the Sempra spokesperson said. "The disputed property was acquired after Sempra LNG secured permits to construct the terminal, and none of the property in dispute in required for the operation of the terminal."

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