Imposing Repose: The Supreme Court Limits CERCLA § 309

Posted on June 19, 2014 by Michael Wall

On June 9th, the Supreme Court ruled, in CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, that § 309 of CERCLA does not preempt state statutes of repose. Section 309 requires state statutes of limitations for injuries from hazardous substances releases to run from the date the plaintiff knew or should have known of the injury caused by the release. But in CTS, the Court held that state statutes of repose are not statutes of limitations, and are not governed by section 309.

That conclusion was hardly self-evident. While section 309 explicitly applies to statutes of limitation, and does not specifically mention statutes of repose, the later have often been understood as a species of the former. When section 309 was enacted, Black’s Law Dictionary explained that “Statutes of limitations are statutes of repose.” Congress itself often referred to statutes of repose as “statutes of limitation.” And the very year after Congress enacted section 309, the Supreme Court itself described application of a two-year state statute of limitations as “wholly consistent with . . . the general purposes of statutes of repose.” The meaning of these terms has diverged in more recent years, but that divergence was not well-established when Congress enacted section 309.

The Court’s conclusion that Congress recognized a clear distinction between statutes of limitation and statutes of repose thus required the Court to assume that Congress used these terms with more precision in section 309 than Congress had done on other occasions, with more precision than (and in conflict with) the then-current edition of Black’s, and with more precision then the Supreme Court itself used the terms a year later. It is not often that this Court holds Congress’s legal acumen in such high regard.

The Court’s lead argument for why Congress did understand this distinction was that page 256 of the Section 301(e) Study Group Report—an expert report submitted to Congress and referenced in the Conference Committee Report—distinguished between these terms. This is surprising analysis. The CTS majority includes avowed skeptics of relying on traditional legislative history. Those justices might previously have been expected to be even more skeptical of attempts to discern congressional intent from statements buried in expert reports referenced by traditional legislative history. Not so, it seems—or at least, not so for this one opinion.

But does the Study Group Report even make the same distinction as the Court? The report recommends that:

"states . . . remove unreasonable procedural and other barriers to recovery in court action for personal injuries resulting from exposure to hazardous waste, including rules relating to the time of accrual of actions."

The Report then recommends that “all states that have not already done so, clearly adopt the rule that an action accrues when the plaintiff discovers or should have discovered the injury or disease and its cause.” That is what Congress effectively did—albeit for the states—in section 309. The Report then states: “This Recommendation is intended also to cover the repeal of statutes of repose which, in a number of states have the same effect as some statutes of limitation.”

This sentence, the Court concludes, shows that Congress must have known that a law that preempts state statutes of limitation would not also preempt state statutes of repose. But is it not at least as likely that any Member of Congress who actually read page 256 of the Study Group Report would have thought that adopting the discovery rule for all states would “also … cover the repeal of statutes of repose”?

Justice Scalia once wrote that “Congress can enact foolish statutes as well as wise ones, and it is not for the courts to decide which is which and rewrite the former.” Reading CTS Corp., one cannot escape the notion that the Court was willing to stretch its usual interpretive rules in order to apply what it considered a wise result to an arguably ambiguous statute. It did so in the apparent service of the policy of repose. But the holding will bring little peace in a state with a statute of repose to individuals who learn, years too late, that they or their children have been sickened by contaminants that a government agency or business released long ago.

Fourth Circuit Rules CERCLA Preempts State Statute of Repose

Posted on July 22, 2013 by Daniel Riesel

On July 10, 2013, a divided Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act’s (“CERCLA’s”) federally-mandated commencement date preempts not only state statutes of limitations but also statutes of repose, an issue that has split federal courts and left considerable uncertainty about the timeliness of claims arising under CERCLA and environmental common law.

One of the unique aspects of CERCLA is that it imposes a universal statute of limitations on toxic torts and other state law claims for damages “caused or contributed to by exposure to any hazardous substance or pollutant or contaminant.”  42 U.S.C. § 9658(b)(4).  This statute of limitations runs from the time the plaintiff discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, the cause of the injury or damages.  CERCLA expressly preempts state statutes of limitations that set an earlier commencement date, such as the date of the tortious conduct or the date of the injury.       

CERCLA’s “federally required commencement date” has generated considerable commentary and confusion, with federal courts split over the scope of CERCLA’s preemptive effect.  One particularly divisive issue involves whether CERCLA preempts state statutes of repose, which are separate from statutes of limitations.  Statutes of repose generally provide a longer period in which to file a claim, but they cannot be tolled and often begin to run earlier as well.  Noting that the federally required commencement date under CERCLA refers only to “statutes of limitations,” the Fifth Circuit has held “the plain language of [CERCLA] does not extend to statutes of repose.”  Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. Poole Chem. Co., 419 F.3d 355, 362 (5th Cir. 2005).

In Waldburger v. CTS Corporation, 2013 WL 3455775 (4th Cir. July 10, 2013), the Fourth Circuit adopted the contrary position, finding the relevant text of CERCLA to be ambiguous and interpreting it to preempt a North Carolina statute of repose.  Reversing the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit held that courts and lawmakers have often used the terms “statute of repose” and “statute of limitations” interchangeably, and that the application of CERCLA’s federal discovery rule was more consistent with the statute’s remedial purpose.  It therefore held a state repose period that required real property claims to be filed within 10 years of the tortious action did not apply to a nuisance claim alleging the discovery of groundwater contamination several years after the final alleged discharge.  In dissent, Judge Stephanie Thacker argued that, “the plain and unambiguous language of § 9658 indicates only statutes of limitations were intended to be preempted.” 

The Waldburger ruling will benefit plaintiffs harmed by the latent effects of environmental contamination, who may not become aware of their injuries until after a state statute of repose has run.  Such plaintiffs must exercise reasonable diligence, however, to establish they did not have reason to know of the harm at an earlier date.