Okies from Muskogee 1; Sierra Club 0. Another NSR Case Goes Down on Statute of Limitations Grounds

Posted on March 10, 2016 by Seth Jaffe

The law is full of fine distinctions.  Today’s example?  A divided 10th Circuit panel affirmed dismissal of the Sierra Club’s citizen suit claims against Oklahoma Gas and Electric concerning alleged PSD violations at OG&E’s Muskogee plant muskogeebecause the Sierra Club did not sue within five years of the commencement of construction – even though Sierra Club did sue within five years of the completion of construction.

I have not seen any other cases present this issue so squarely.  For the majority, the decision was relatively easy.  Because the CAA has no limitations provisions, the default five-year limitations period set forth at 28 USC § 2462 applies.  Section 2462 provides that suits must be brought “within five years from the date when the claim first accrued.”  That “first accrued” language was Sierra Club’s downfall.  The court decided that a claim “first accrues” when a plaintiff has a right to bring a claim.  In the PSD context, that is when a defendant commences construction or modification without a permit.  Because the Sierra Club did not file within five years after OG&E commenced construction, the complaint was late.

Not so fast, argued the dissent. As the dissent rightly noted, the CAA does not make commencing construction or modification without a required PSD permit a violation; it makes “the construction or modification of any source” without a permit a violation.  Thus, the dissent argued, OG&E was still “constructing” its project without a permit during a period less than five years before Sierra Club brought suit and was still in violation, so the suit was timely.

I should note that, whether the dissent is correct or not, it did rightly distinguish two other cases, United States v. Midwest Generation and United States v. EME Homer City Generation, which have been cited in opposition to “continuing violation” theories.  As the dissent emphasized, those cases concerned whether operation of the modified facility, after construction was complete, constituted continuing violations.  The dissent agreed that post-construction operations cannot effectively toll the statute of limitations. However, that is a different question than whether continuing construction keeps the limitations period open.  Indeed, the EME Homer City decision specifically contemplated the possibility that:

"the maximum daily fine accrues each day the owner or operator spends modifying or constructing the facility – from the beginning of construction to the end of construction."

That sounds like a basis for new claims accruing each day, thus triggering a new limitations period.  I think that this case is a close question. However, as interested as the Supreme Court seems to be in the CAA these days, I don’t see it taking this case, and certainly not before there is a circuit split on the issue.

What is impossible to determine is what caused the Sierra Club to wait.  Why take the chance?  It does seem a self-inflicted wound either way.

(Very quickly, I’ll note that the majority also dismissed Sierra Club’s injunctive relief claims under the concurrent remedies doctrine.  That’s an important issue, but not a difficult or interesting one, at least where the government is not a party.)