Posted on June 2, 2016
The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) fairly boasts that it lived up to its tag line “Rescuing Liberty from Coast to Coast” by following its 2012 Supreme Court victory in Sackett v. EPA with its May 31, 2016 victory in United States Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc. In both Clean Water Act cases the PLF represented the property owners on appeal, arguing that the particular agency action was final, subject to judicial review. The Supreme Court agreed both times. Some boasting is due.
The particulars of each case flow from disputes about the scope of “navigable waters” under the Clean Water Act. Neither case resolved the merits issue. Both cases considered only whether the dispute may be brought to court by challenging a pre-enforcement agency action.
The Sacketts filled in a half acre of their 2/3-acre residential lot near Priest Lake, Idaho with dirt and rock in preparation for building a home. EPA served a compliance order advising the Sacketts that they violated the Clean Water Act by filling in waters of the United States without a Section 404 dredge and fill permit. The Order unilaterally prevented further construction and required the Sacketts to remove the fill material then restore the wetland pursuant to an EPA Restoration Work Plan.
The Sacketts tried to challenge EPA’s order, but were told by EPA, then by the District Court, that they had no right to challenge the order until EPA attempted to enforce it. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, setting the Sacketts squarely on the horns of their dilemma. Disregarding the unilateral compliance order subjected the Sacketts to potential fines of up to $75,000 per day. Complying with the order meant spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to carry out the EPA’s Restoration Work Plan, and never getting to build on their property.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert, and Justice Scalia, authoring the decision concluded that the compliance order met the Bennett two-prong test for reviewability: (1) no adequate remedy other than review under the Administrative Procedures Act, and (2) no statute, in this case the Clean Water Act, precluded that review. Justice Alito, concurring, declared: “The position taken in this case by the Federal Government -- a position that the Court now squarely rejects -- would have put the property rights of ordinary Americans entirely at the mercy of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees.” And later: “In a nation that values due process, not to mention private property, such treatment is unthinkable.”
The Hawkes case, four years later, is the same song, second verse. This time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issued the offending decision -- a jurisdictional determination (JD) that waters of the United States existed on 530 acres from which Hawkes Co., Inc. (Hawkes) and its affiliated companies planned to mine for peat. Hawkes provides peat for golf courses and sports fields, and mining peat on the 530 acres would extend the life of its peat mining business by ten to fifteen years. The USACE concluded that the property was connected by a “relatively permanent water” (a series of culverts and unnamed streams) that flowed into the Middle River and then into the Red River of the North, a “traditional navigable waterway” about 120 miles away. With the USACE determination, Hawkes needed a permit to harvest peat. Moreover, USACE advised that before it issued a permit, it would require additional hydrological and functional resource assessments and an evaluation of upstream potential impacts, the cost of which would exceed $100,000.
Using an analysis, discussed in my colleague’s post Sending a Message on WOTUS, the Court concluded that a JD satisfied both prongs of Bennett, and affirmed the Eighth Circuit, remanding the Hawkes companies to District Court of Minnesota - Minneapolis with the right to litigate the jurisdictional determination, same as the Sacketts. When the Supreme Court ruled favorably on their case the Sacketts were remanded to the Idaho District Court, where their court battle continues. Presumably, the battle will continue with the Hawkes’ companies as well.
At the heart of each battle is whether or not the property actually contains “Waters of the United States.” Following the procedural “yellow brick road” won’t get anyone out of Oz -- not until a clear definition of waters of the United States emerges.
Posted on June 2, 2016
The May 31 decision in Hawkes may be less important for what it says about the reviewability of jurisdictional determinations (JDs) under the Clean Water Act than for what is says about the far more consequential stakes in the pending challenges to EPA’s Clean Water Rule (aka WOTUS), which will undoubtedly find its way to the Court following a decision by the Sixth Circuit which is expected before the end of the year.
Contrary to my prediction the Court did rule (unanimously) that JDs are final agency actions subject to review under the APA. In an opinion penned by Chief Justice Roberts the Court upheld the conclusion of the Eighth Circuit but substituted a different test for finality, one that emerged during oral argument and one that introduces a novel and perhaps questionable rationale. The key question was whether JDs have legal consequences. In roundabout fashion, Roberts concluded they did because a positive finding of jurisdiction meant that the applicant was denied the advantage of a negative determination (or NJD). That had the effect of denying the applicant the benefit of what Roberts called a “safe harbor” provision contained, not in the statute or implementing regulations, but in a 2015 Memorandum of Agreement between by EPA and the Corps. Roberts read the MOA as creating a legal right – similar to a covenant not to sue – binding the government to a five year commitment not to revisit the NJD, an interpretation the government vigorously disputed as pointed out by Justice Ginsburg in her concurrence.
This ruling could have significant practical effects. Since 2008 the Corps and EPA have issued over 400,000 JDs of which approximately 40% were approved JD’s. Under the MOA, the process has become more formal, giving it at least the appearance if not the reality of adjudication. The formality of the process convinced a number of the Justices, particularly Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan, that JDs should be considered final actions under the Abbott Labs test. They emphasized the fact that under the MOA the agencies were not simply giving advice to the public. This raises the question whether the agencies may want to rethink the MOA and consider revising the safe harbor provision to make clear it is not binding. The Solicitor raised this possibility during the oral argument (transcript at p 16 lines 16-25).
Pursuing that route, however, runs the risk of further alienating Justice Kennedy and the government can ill afford to lose his potentially crucial vote if and when the Clean Water Rule reaches the Court. In his concurring opinion, joined not surprisingly by Justices Alito and Thomas, Kennedy went out of his way to take several pot shots at the Clean Water Act and the agencies implementation of it. Referring to “the Act’s ominous reach” Kennedy said it “continues to raise troubling questions regarding the Government’s power to cast doubt on the full use and enjoyment of private property throughout the Nation.” During oral argument Kennedy offered the view that the CWA is “arguably unconstitutionally vague, and certainly harsh in the civil and criminal penalties it puts into practice.”
It is too soon to write the obituary for the Clean Water Rule. But Kennedy’s vote is more in doubt now than when he authored the concurring opinion in Rapanos showing a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of both the values enshrined in the CWA and the constitutional issues it raises. Kennedy’s “significant nexus” test, widely accepted as controlling by the lower courts, was the blueprint EPA and the Corps used to write the rule. Given these more recent statements, that may not be enough to win his approval. The fate of the rule may well depend on how soon and by whom the vacancy on the Court is filled.
Posted on December 17, 2015
As Annette Kovar recently predicted in her blog, the Supreme Court granted cert in United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Construction., Inc. (15-290) to resolve a split in the circuit courts on the question whether a jurisdictional determination (JD) under the Clean Water Act constitutes “final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy in a court" and is therefore subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act.
In Hawkes , the Eighth Circuit held that the JD was a final agency action subject to the APA. The case arose after a company sought to mine peat from wetland property owned by two affiliated companies in northwestern Minnesota. The Corps’ JD found that the wetlands onsite were "waters of the United States" and were therefore subject to the permit requirements of section 404 of the CWA. This decision runs counter to the Fifth Circuit decision in Belle Co., LLC v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs.
Both courts evaluated the reviewability of JD’s in light of Sackett v. EPA, which held that property owners may bring a civil action under the APA to challenge EPA's issuance of a CWA §309 compliance order directing them to restore their property immediately pursuant to an EPA work plan and assessing penalties of $37, 500 per day for failure to comply. The Fifth Circuit in Belle declined to apply Sackett on the ground that a JD does not have the same legal consequences as a 309 compliance order. The Eighth Circuit disagreed and held that a JD presents landowners with a Hobson’s choice requiring them “either to incur substantial compliance costs (the permitting process), forego what they assert is lawful use of their property, or risk substantial enforcement penalties.”
In my view the Fifth Circuit has the better reading of Sackett and the governing law on what constitutes final agency action. The Supreme Court uses a two prong test to determine finality: first the action must “mark the consummation of the agency’s decision making process;” and second “the action “must be one by which rights or obligations have been determined, or from which legal consequences will flow.” Bennett v. Spear There is no question that a JD satisfies the first prong. But a JD does not meet the second prong for at least three reasons. First, a JD does not determine the rights and obligations of the landowner for the simple reason that the statute has already done that. Section 301 of the CWA prohibits any discharge by any person to a water of the US without a permit. The landowner’s legal obligations are exactly the same with or without the JD.
Second, unlike the compliance order in Sackett, a JD does not compel the landowner to take any action at all. Nor does it expose the landowner to penalties, let alone the double penalties at issue in Sackett. The JD notifies the landowner that a permit may be required for discharging dredge or fill material into the wetland unless one of the statutory exclusions such as prior converted cropland apply. However as the Fifth Circuit said, “even if Belle had never requested the JD and instead had begun to fill, it would not have been immune to enforcement action by the Corps or EPA.”
Third, the Eighth Circuit was simply wrong to equate the practical consequences of a JD putting the landowner on notice that a permit was required with Bennett’s requirement that the action must have legal consequences. In Bennett the action at issue was a biological opinion issued under section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. The Court found that under the ESA “the Biological Opinion at issue here has direct and appreciable legal consequences;” namely, that it curtailed the authority of the Bureau of Reclamation to provide water for irrigators from federal reservoirs in order to protect endangered fish. Nothing remotely similar to that follows from the issuance of a JD.
Finally the Court ought to be leery of broadening the reach of the APA to include actions having practical effects but not actual legal consequences. That could sweep in a large number of federal actions that have never been thought of as justiciable controversies—for example notices of violations which arguably trigger even more immediate and serious consequences than JD’s. Regulated entities are not the only ones who might benefit from a relaxation of the APA’s finality requirement. Environmental plaintiffs would gain increased access to the courts as well.
Posted on December 10, 2015
The U.S. Supreme Court will likely agree to review the decision of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Hawkes Co. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. So said John Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources and College Fellow, to the 2015 National Clean Water Law Seminar. He described the Hawkes case as the second generation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Sackett v. EPA decision in 2012.
As noted here, the Hawkes case is another wetlands case, this time about a Minnesota peat farming company that applied for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the Clean Water Act to expand its peat mining operation. The Corps advised Hawkes that it had made a preliminary jurisdictional determination (JD) that the property on which the expansion was planned included regulated wetlands requiring a more extensive environmental assessment. Despite Corps staff attempts to dissuade continuing with the permitting process, Hawkes challenged the preliminary JD. The Corps subsequently prepared an Approved JD and ultimately issued a Revised JD after its own internal review raised issues of concern. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Corps JD was a judicially reviewable final agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). Previously, the Fifth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal had ruled that a Corps JD was not a judicially reviewable final agency action. The Hawkes case sets up a split in the Circuit Courts making Supreme Court review more likely.
One might recall that the Supreme Court’s unanimous Sackett v. EPA decision held an EPA compliance order, alleging the Sacketts had violated the Clean Water Act by placing fill material on their property without a permit and requiring restoration of the property, was a final agency action and subject to judicial review under the APA. The Supreme Court concluded the Sacketts had no other adequate remedy at law and further stated that the APA creates a “presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action.” Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, said this “presumption of judicial review is a repudiation of the principle that efficiency of regulation conquers all.” He continued that nothing in the CWA can be read to enable or condone “the strong-arming of regulated parties into ‘voluntary compliance’ without the opportunity for judicial review—even judicial review of the question whether the regulated party is within EPA’s jurisdiction.” Clearly, principles of fundamental fairness and due process underlie the Sackett decision.
If one goes back to the Hawkes case, note that the Corps describes its preliminary and Approved JDs as tools-- i.e. guidance, to help implement the Clean Water Act, and not orders. JDs probably do streamline the permitting process because an applicant will know what the Corps’ position is before investing heavily in a permit process and may decide to abandon the project. But, there is a hint of “strong-arming” tactics in the Hawkes case that does not bode well for a deferential decision by the Supreme Court to the Corps. However, even if Corps’ JDs become subject to judicial review in the future, won’t a reviewing court still ascribe a certain amount of deference to the Corps’ expertise under APA standard of review precedents? Wouldn’t the Corps have to defend its JD at some point if challenged? Will the Corps really lose much by defending its JD sooner rather than later?
Posted on December 19, 2013
In Sackett v. EPA, the Supreme Court held that pre-enforcement review is available to challenge an order concluding that parties had violated the Clean Water Act by filling a wetland without a permit. Practitioners have wondered whether, in response to Sackett, EPA would take steps to avoid review, such as by issuing warning letters instead of orders. In a recent case, EPA employed another tactic. EPA withdrew an enforcement order, hoping thereby to avoid judicial review under Sackett by claiming that the case was now moot. Not so fast, a court in West Virginia concluded, EPA’s position is still reviewable. Alt v. EPA, 2013 WL 5744778 (N.D. W.Va. No. 2:12–CV–42, Oct. 23, 2013), available here.
In the Alt case, EPA issued an enforcement order against Lois Alt, the owner of a poultry farm, on the grounds that Alt failed to obtain a Clean Water permit for storm water discharges that allegedly contained manure. Alt filed suit in U.S. District Court in West Virginia challenging the EPA order based on the Supreme Court’s Sackett decision. The American Farm Bureau intervened because of concern over EPA’s position on agricultural storm water.
Subsequently, EPA withdrew the order against Alt, nominally because Alt had taken steps to remedy environmental harm -- or did EPA foresee an unhappy ending in court? In any event, EPA filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit as moot. Alt opposed EPA’s motion to dismiss, arguing that EPA would likely resume its unlawful conduct after the case is dismissed. The district court denied the motion on the grounds that EPA had not changed its underlying position concerning whether the discharges were agricultural storm water exempt from permit requirements. The district court noted that EPA reserved the possibility of reissuing the order if there was a significant change in the poultry farm’s operations, and the intervenors showed that EPA’s alleged assertion of authority can be expected to continue. In short, EPA’s position was reviewable even though the order that provoked the lawsuit had been withdrawn by EPA. As Jimmy Reed said in his classic blues song, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”
If that wasn’t enough to ruin EPA’s day, the court went on to reach the merits of EPA’s position concerning the need for a NPDES permit and granted summary judgment for Alt. The court held that no permit was required because the discharges were exempt as “agricultural storm water discharges.” The court rejected EPA’s argument that the discharges did not have an agricultural purpose, concluding that the poultry operation was agricultural, that the incidental manure was related to the raising of poultry, and that the runoff from the farm was storm water caused by precipitation.
The Alt decision is significant both for its review of an EPA position underlying an order that had been withdrawn and for its decision concerning the agricultural storm water exemption.
Posted on June 19, 2013
When Sackett was decided by the Supreme Court, an uncharted issue was the extent to which the decision would be extended to make pre-enforcement review available to EPA orders under other statutes. EPA has now acknowledged that Sackett has a long reach.
As previously reported, the Supreme Court in March 2012 issued its long awaited decision in Sackett v. EPA. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that the Sacketts may bring a civil action under the Administrative Procedure Act to challenge EPA’s compliance order. The court rejected the government’s argument that EPA is less likely to use orders if they are subject to judicial review, saying that “[t]he APA’s presumption of judicial review is a repudiation of the principle that efficiency of regulation conquers all.”
When I reported on this decision earlier, I noted that it will be important to see how EPA responds and what if any changes are made to EPA’s practice and procedure for issuing orders under other statutes.
EPA has now formally acknowledged that the Sackett decision has implications for other statutes. In a memorandum dated March 21, 2013, EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance has concluded that it is important to advise recipients of EPA unilateral orders under other programs of their opportunity to seek pre-enforcement judicial review of such orders.
In particular, EPA has directed enforcement staff to immediately begin adding the following language to typical unilateral orders under FIFRA, Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and EPCRA:
“Respondent may seek federal judicial review of the Order pursuant to [insert applicable statutory provision providing for judicial review of final agency action.]”
The foregoing language applies, inter alia, to stop sale, use or removal orders under FIFRA §13, stop work or compliance orders under Clean Air Act §§113(a) and 167, and emergency and compliance orders under EPCRA §§ 325(a).
With respect to compliance and corrective action orders under RCRA §§3008(a), 3008(h), 9003(h) and 9006(a), EPA’s Memorandum directs enforcement staff to include language advising respondents that they may seek administrative review in accordance with 40 CFR Part 22 or 24 as applicable.
EPA’s March 21, 2013 Memorandum states that EPA believes that the reasoning in Sackett does not lead EPA to believe that similar language is appropriate for unilateral orders issued under statutory authorities other than those discussed in the Memorandum, and it is noteworthy that the EPA Memorandum makes no reference to unilateral orders under CERCLA.
Justice Scalia’s opinion in Sackett had little difficulty in disposing of the government’s argument that the Clean Water Act should be read as precluding judicial review under the APA, 5 U. S. C. §701(a)(1). The APA creates a presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action, and the Court concluded that nothing in the Clean Water Act’s statutory scheme precludes APA review. EPA undoubtedly believes the CERCLA is different because of the provisions in §§113(h) that deprived the courts of jurisdiction to review challenges to removal or remedial actions selected or orders issued under §106 unless one of five exceptions applies.
In addition to their Administrative Procedure Act argument, Sacketts also maintained that EPA’s issuance of the compliance order deprived them of due process in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Because the APA disposed of the matter, the Supreme Court did not reach the Fifth Amendment issue. Interestingly, before it granted certiorari in Sackett, the Supreme Court denied certiorari to review a decision by the D.C. Circuit rejecting arguments made by General Electric that CERCLA §106 orders violate the due process clause. Stay tuned.
Posted on April 6, 2012
On Friday, March 30, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) announced that the agency was withdrawing its December 7, 2010 Imminent and Substantial Endangerment Administrative Order (“AO ”) issued unilaterally to Range Resources Corporation and Range Resources Production Company (“Range”). With much fanfare and national media attention, EPA issued the AO to address the contamination of two water wells in North Central Texas. EPA alleged that the source of the contamination was from Range’s oil and gas activities, including hydraulic fracturing, in the Barnett Shale Formation. Range has challenged EPA’s action with pending litigation in the Northern District of Texas and in the Fifth Circuit. Was EPA’s decision to withdraw its AO an outgrowth of the recent unanimous Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA?
In addition to ordering replacement water supplies to the recipients of water from the affected water well, the AO included the requirements that Range study a twenty-county aquifer, identify gas flow pathways anywhere within that aquifer regardless of their source, and prepare a plan to eliminate those flows and remediate any area of the aquifer that has been impacted by gas from any source. Range was to identify and sample all private water wells within 3,000 feet of their two suspect gas wells, as well as all the water wells serving a subdivision in Parker County. Range informed EPA that it disputed the validity of the AO and would not comply with some of its terms.
In addition to Range’s challenge to the AO, the Railroad Commission Texas, the state agency with sole jurisdiction and responsibility for the control and disposition of waste and the abatement and prevention of pollution of surface and subsurface water resulting from oil and gas activities, called a hearing to consider whether Range’s operations caused or contributed to the contamination of the water wells in question. Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, conducted on January 19-20, 2011, the Railroad Commission found that the contamination of the water wells came from the shallower Strawn gas field, which begins about 200 to 400 feet below the surface. Geochemical gas testing demonstrated that the natural gas seeping into the water wells did not match the gas produced by Range from the much deeper Barnett Shale field, which is more than 5.000 feet below the surface in that area of Parker County. The evidence showed that hydraulic fracturing of gas wells in the area could not result in communication between the Barnett Shale gas field and the shallow aquifers from which water wells in the area produce. EPA chose not to participate in the state hearing process.
EPA brought a civil enforcement action in the Northern District of Texas against Range on January 18, 2011, Case No. 3:11-cv-00116-F, seeking injunctive relief and civil penalties for Range’s failure to comply with the AO. Range filed a petition for review on the AO with the 5th Circuit on January 20, 2011, Case No. 11-60040, challenging the AO and the constitutionality of the AO statutory scheme as interpreted and applied by EPA.
The district court in its Order Denying Without Prejudice Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss and Staying Case, 2011 WL 2469731 (N.D.Tex.), struggled with EPA’s claim that it only has to prove noncompliance with the AO and the Court has no jurisdiction to review the factual and legal basis of the AO. The Court found that the AO was a final agency action, but stayed the case pending the 5th Circuit decision.
The issues before the 5th Circuit included whether the AO was final agency action and, if so, has Range been provided due process. Oral argument was considered on October 3, 2011.
On March 21, 2012, a unanimous Supreme Court held in the Sackett case that AOs issued under the Clean Water Act constitute final agency action. Under the Administrative Procedure Act, Respondents, like Chantell and Michael Sackett, are afforded pre-enforcement review of the factual and legal basis of the AO and may bring a civil action under the APA to challenge the AO.
Given the opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court in the Sackett case, EPA must have felt less than enthusiastic about its prospects in the pending Range cases. On Friday afternoon, March 30 with no fanfare and limited media attention, EPA announced the withdrawal of the Range AO. In a letter to EPA on the same date, Range confirmed the withdrawal of the AO and a related joint stipulation to dismiss EPA’s enforcement action and committed to sample twenty private water wells located in southern Parker County on a quarterly basis for one year, a substantial reduction in the scope and magnitude of the terms in the AO.
EPA’s hasty dismissal of the Range case raises some interesting questions. Did EPA agree to withdraw the Range AO in order to minimize the litigation risk of establishing pre-enforcement review rights of respondents to unilateral AOs under the Safe Drinking Water Act? How extensive will the Sackett case be applied to unilateral AOs authorized under other non-Clean Water Act statutes administered by EPA and other federal agencies? What are the implications to EPA’s ability to react quickly to bonified public health emergencies? Will Congress need to overhaul statutory AO provisions to avoid the problem confronted in Sackett?
Posted on March 29, 2012
As Ted Garrett reported in his recent blog, the Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited decision in Sackett v. EPA. Not surprisingly (based on the questions asked at oral argument), the Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit and ruled that the recipient of an administrative compliance order to restore wetlands under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) can challenge that order in court under the APA. The Court soundly rejected the Government’s argument and the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that the CWA implicitly precludes “pre enforcement” judicial review of such orders.
In addition to that important ruling, this decision is noteworthy for what it did not do. Even more pointedly, the decision highlights the enormous underlying problem of uncertainty about the scope of waters regulated by the CWA, which remains untouched and unfixed by this opinion.
One of the important issues not addressed by the Sackett decision is the constitutional due process argument made by the plaintiffs that precluding judicial review of such orders is unfair and unlawful. The decision simply says that the CWA itself does not preclude judicial review, so the right to review of this final agency action is presumed under the APA. As a result, it left for another day whether other statutes (like CERCLA § 113(h)) that expressly preclude pre-enforcement judicial review would pass constitutional muster.
Second, it did not expressly address whether a party can judicially challenge any aspect of an administrative order, or can only make the basic “jurisdictional challenge” regarding whether the agency in fact has regulatory authority over the subject property or persons. Justice Ginsburg, in her concurring opinion, states that the decision only addresses the jurisdictional issue and leaves the question of whether other types of challenges can be brought “open for another day and case.” It remains to be seen whether EPA and the lower courts will adopt this narrow reading of the decision.
Third, the opinion emphasizes the clear finality of the administrative order at issue in the Sackett case as a basis for APA judicial review. It remains to be seen whether an agency order or ruling subject to some additional agency appeal, review or deliberative process, no matter how futile or fore-ordained, would be considered a “final agency action”. It also remains to be seen whether EPA and other agencies will attempt to address and undercut this “finality” factor by creating post-order administrative processes that delay or frustrate judicial review.
Finally, while some will trumpet this as a great victory for the regulated community, Justice Alito’s concurring opinion got it right in saying that this “decision provides a modest measure of relief”, but the huge underlying problem reflected by this dispute is the “hopelessly indeterminate” scope of “waters of the United States” regulated under the CWA, which this decision does nothing to alleviate or address. As a result, while a tiny fraction of regulated persons may now choose to challenge an administrative compliance order in court, the very significant cost of doing so, and the low chance of success combined with the draconian and mounting penalties resulting from a failed challenge, will still leave nearly all regulated persons (in Justice Alito’s words) “with little practical alternative but to dance to the EPA’s tune.”
The bottom-line is that allowing regulated persons to sue in these circumstances (again in Justice Alito’s words) is “better than nothing,” but the underlying regulatory morass will not be fixed unless and until Congress or EPA and the Corps develop a clear, appropriate and formal delineation of waters regulated by the CWA. The informal “Jurisdictional Guidance” floated last year by EPA and reportedly now parked at the White House, if adopted, would worsen rather than resolve this uncertainty. After 40 years, it’s time to fix this mess and pass a clear law or rule on the reach of the Clean Water Act.
Posted on March 22, 2012
The Supreme Court issued its long awaited decision in Sackett v. EPA. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that the Sacketts may bring a civil action under the Administrative Procedure Act to challenge EPA’s compliance order. The court rejected the government’s argument that EPA is less likely to use orders if they are subject to judicial review, saying that “[t]he APA’s presumption of judicial review is a repudiation of the principle that efficiency of regulation conquers all.” It will be important to see how EPA responds and what if any changes are made to EPA’s practice and procedure for issuing orders in wetlands and perhaps other matters. See link to the Sackett opinion.
EPA had issued a compliance order charging the Sacketts with filling in a wetland during construction of their home, in violation of the Clean Water Act, and requiring them to restore their property. The Sacketts argued that they were entitled to prompt judicial review because they faced severe penalties for noncompliance and disputed that their property is a wetland. The United States argued that the Sacketts could comply with the EPA order and submit an application for a wetlands permit or defend if EPA brings an enforcement action, but may not seek judicial review of EPA’s order. The tenor of the oral argument did not bode well for the United States, as previously reported. The Court’s unanimous opinion, reversing the Ninth Circuit, bears that out.
The court’s opinion, written by Justice Scalia, starts with the proposition that the APA provides for judicial review of “final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy in a court.” 5 U.S.C. §704. The court concludes that EPA’s compliance order has all the hallmarks of APA finality: it required the Sacketts to restore their property according to an agency-approved plan, exposed the Sacketts to double penalties in future enforcement proceedings, and severely limits their ability to obtain a Section 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. See 33 U. S. C. §1344; 33 CFR§326.3(e)(1)(iv). Rejecting the government’s argument, the court held that applying to the Corps of Engineers for a permit and then filing suit under the APA if that permit is denied does not provide an adequate remedy.
The Court also had little difficulty in disposing of the government’s argument that the Clean Water Act should be read as precluding judicial review under the APA, 5 U. S. C. §701(a)(1). The APA creates a presumption favoring judicial review of administrative action, and the Court concluded that nothing in the Clean Water Act’s statutory scheme precludes APA review. The court was similarly not persuaded that the issuance of a compliance order is simply a step in the deliberative process, given that EPA rejected the Sackett’s attempt to obtain a hearing, and the next step will involve judicial and not administrative deliberation. Justice Scalia’s opinion concludes that “there is no reason to think the Clean Water Act was uniquely designed to enable the strong-arming of regulated parties into ‘voluntary compliance’ without the opportunity for judicial review -- even judicial review of the question whether the regulated party is within the EPA’s jurisdiction.”
Justice Alito’s concurring opinion is of interest because of its emphasis on the fact that the “reach of the Clean Water Act is notoriously unclear.” Citing an amicus brief filed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Justice Alito cites EPA’s guidance advising property owners that jurisdictional determinations concerning wetlands will be made on a case-by-case basis. His opinion concludes that allowing property owners to sue under the APA is “better than nothing,” but only clarification of the reach of the Clean Water Act can rectify the underlying problem.
It will be important to see how EPA responds and what if any changes are made to EPA’s practice and procedure for issuing orders in wetlands and perhaps other matters. The Sackett decision will be relied upon by parties who are subject to orders under other statutes that EPA administers. For some of the reasons cited by Justice Alito, the Sackett decision also underscores the need for clarification of the reach of the Clean Water Act. Stay tuned.
Posted on January 12, 2012
The Supreme Court heard oral argument this morning (January 9, 2012) in Sackett v. EPA, No. 10-1062. EPA had issued a compliance order charging the Sacketts with filling in a wetlands, in the course of building their home, in violation of the Clean Water Act and requiring them to restore their property. The Sacketts dispute that their property is a wetlands and seek an opportunity for judicial review of EPA’s order. EPA argues that the Sacketts could comply with the EPA order or submit an application for a wetlands permit or defend if EPA brings an enforcement action, but may not seek judicial review of EPA’s order.
The tenor of the oral argument did not bode well for the United States. Some of the Court’s questions seemed to focus on how to write the opinion and the consequences of a ruling for the Sacketts. If the Sacketts prevail, it will be important to see how EPA responds and what if any changes are made to EPA’s practice and procedure for issuing orders in wetlands and perhaps other matters. The transcript of the Supreme Court argument is available [here].
The toughest questions and comments were aimed at counsel for the United States, Malcolm Stewart. Justice Alito stated: “Mr. Stewart, if you related the facts of this case as they come to us to an ordinary homeowner, don't you think most ordinary homeowners would say this kind of thing can't happen in the United States?” (Tr. 37)
Chief Justice Roberts asked “what would you do, Mr. Stewart, if you received this compliance order? (Tr. 35). When Stewart responded that one could apply for an after-the-fact permit,” Chief Justice Roberts replied “You wouldn’t do that, right? You know you will never get an after the fact permit if the EPA has sent you a compliance order saying you’ve got wetlands.” (Tr. 36) Earlier, Justice Kagan had asked counsel for the Sacketts rhetorically whether the critical point wasn’t that EPA would not entertain an after-the-fact permit while a compliance order is outstanding. (Tr. 12). Justice Alito expressed the view it “seems very strange for that, for a party to apply for a permit on the ground that they don't need a permit at all.” (Tr. 14).
The government’s alternative solution, that one could comply with the compliance order, met with an incredulous response from Chief Justice Roberts: ”That's what you would do? You would say, I don't think there are wetlands on my property but EPA does, so I'm going to take out all the fill, I'm going to plant herbaceous trees or whatever it is, and I will worry about whether to -- that way, I'll just do what the government tells me I should do.” (Tr. 36-37).
Justice Breyer focused on the finality of the EPA order for purposes of judicial review, stating “for 75 years the courts have interpreted statutes with an eye towards permitting judicial review, not the opposite. And yet -- so here you are saying that this statute that says nothing about it precludes review, and then the second thing you say is that this isn't final. So I read the order. It looks like about as final a thing as I have ever seen.” (Tr. 41)
Justice Ginsburg asked Mr. Stewart whether, once EPA made the determination that there were wetlands, that be the end of the matter as far as EPA is concerned. Mr. Stewart got himself in difficulty when he replied “ I think they have reached that conclusion for now. I don't think it would be accurate to say that we have done all the research we would want to do if we were going to be required to prove up our case in court.” (Tr. 51) Justice Alito was not pleased with that reply: “Well, that makes the EPA's conduct here even more outrageous. We think now that this is -- these are wetlands that -- that qualify, so we're going to hit you with this compliance order, but, you know, when we look into it more thoroughly in the future, we might change our mind?” (Tr. 51)
In questions to counsel for the Sacketts, Justice Breyer noted the government’s concern that “when you get judicial review of this kind of order, the Court doesn't refer on fact-finding that isn't made on a record. * * * And so they'll have a hard time -- or a harder time -- in each of these cases subjecting it to judicial fact-finding.” Justice Breyer suggested that EPA might change its procedure if the Sacketts prevail, and providing some type of pre-order or post-order procedure that would be open to change. (Tr. 55)
It is of course always difficult to predict the outcome of a Supreme Court case with certainty simply based on oral argument. That being said, it is also difficult to be optimistic about the government’s chances of prevailing based on the comments made by the court during oral argument today. Whatever the outcome, the Court’s ruling will likely be an important environmental and administrative law precedent.
Posted on January 11, 2012
I am generally loath to speculate about what the Supreme Court will do based on oral argument, but the overwhelming reaction to the oral argument in Sackett v. EPA was that EPA is going to lose. What would a loss mean? In simplest terms, EPA would no longer be able to issue enforcement orders under the Clean Water Act without those orders being subject to judicial review. Such a decision would undeniably be significant. Everyone practicing in this area knows how coercive EPA enforcement orders can be. A person who thinks that he is not liable or that the order is inappropriate, and faced with having to violate the order and wait for EPA to bring an enforcement action to obtain judicial review, is truly between a rock and a hard place – or perhaps Scylla and Charybdis (I’m not sure which, but it’s not good, either way). The opportunity for preenforcement review would eliminate much of EPA’s coercive power.
The big question is whether a decision against EPA would be so broad as to make it clear that EPA’s order authority under other statutes, such as CERCLA, would be similarly affected. Here, speculation really is difficult, because the Supreme Court could invalidate EPA’s CWA authority several different ways, with differing impacts on other statutes. Readers who want to explore the issue in more depth than a blog post can review an article I did in the ABA Superfund and Natural Resource Damages Litigation Committee Newsletter.
As long as I am speculating, I’m going to go out on limb and predict that the Court’s decision will not be easily limited to the CWA. I think EPA’s order authority is in trouble across the board.
The next big question is when lower courts are going to actually start paying attention to what the Supreme Court says about environmental cases. I’m tired of this pattern. A series of cases are decided by lower courts, almost universally in EPA’s favor. Indeed, one of the striking things about Sackett is that the Supreme Court took the case without a circuit court split – EPA had won before every circuit court that had reached the question. The Supreme Court applies principles that are broadly accepted outside the environmental arena, but which for reasons unknown to everyone but the lower court judges have been thought inapplicable to environmental cases, and EPA loses. The next several years are spent with EPA, DOJ, and the lower courts merrily constructing some new edifice which allows EPA to continue to win – until the Supreme Court takes another case and says “No, we really meant it.”
There is a lesson here for lower courts, if they would but listen. Environmental cases are not sui generis. EPA does not necessarily win just because it is protecting the environment. General principles of corporate, administrative, and constitutional law apply. Under this framework, EPA will still win most of the time. That’s the nature of administrative law. Expert agencies receive a lot of deference from the courts in interpreting their organic statutes and applying their expertise. But they don’t win all the time, and they don’t win just because they are EPA.
Rant over. Let’s see what the Supremes actually do.