Seventh Circuit Allows Cost Recovery Action for AOC Response Costs

Posted on January 25, 2013 by John Barkett

In Bernstein v. Bankert, the Seventh Circuit follows the Second, Third, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits in holding a CERCLA plaintiff with a contribution claim under Section 113(f) does not have a cost recovery claim under Section 107.  But when does a signatory to an administrative order on consent (AOC) have a contribution claim?

Plaintiffs incurred response costs arising out of two administrative orders on consent (AOC).  The first AOC resulted in an engineering evaluation and cost analysis of removal options.  The second AOC resulted in implementation of the selected removal action.

The first AOC was carried out to its completion.  Completion of the second AOC was conditioned, however, upon the “complete and satisfactory performance by Respondents of their obligations under this Order” and issuance of a Notice of Completion by EPA, and neither condition had occurred at the time of the summary judgment.

The district court held plaintiffs could only sue in contribution and the limitations period had run on claims under both AOCs.

The court of appeals agreed on the claim arising out of the first AOC since that AOC had been completed and too much time had passed before suit was filed.  It disagreed on the claim arising out of the costs incurred under the second AOC, however, because Section 113(f)(3)(B) of CERCLA gives a contribution action to a person “who has resolved its liability to the United States … in an administratively … approved settlement,” and the second AOC had not yet been completed.  Thus, plaintiffs had not “resolved their liability” to the United States and could only bring a claim under Section 107 for which the limitations period had not yet run.  The court of appeals also held that whether costs are incurred voluntarily or involuntarily is irrelevant since 113(f)(3)(B) focuses only on whether liability had been “resolved.” 

There was no discussion of what might happen if the second AOC was completed during the course of the litigation so all CERCLA lawyers should stay tuned.