The Truth about Sue and Settle that Scott Pruitt Ignores

Posted on December 4, 2017 by Jonathan Z. Cannon

Seth Jaffe’s post about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s sue and settle directive is right on. As he notes, the Administrator punts on the question at the core of his holy war against sue and settle: that is, what is the evidence that sue and settle has been abused in the way he presumes?  In particular, was sue and settle systematically used during the Obama administration as a vehicle of collusion between environmental groups and sympathetic agency officials, catering to the greens through rulemaking in secret? That was the characterization advanced by the Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business and anti-regulatory groups that made sue and settle a battle cry in their war against Obama’s environmental policies. Without citing any evidence, Pruitt has proceeded as if that characterization is correct.

A careful, fact-based, analytically disciplined examination of the practice of sue and settle during the Obama administration shows that this characterization is not correct.  That examination appeared in a law review note by a former law student of mine, Ben Tyson, who went on to clerk for Chief Justice Roberts on the Supreme Court.  I recommend that anyone who is interested in this issue -- and who delights in careful research and analysis – read the entire article. But here’s a brief summary for those who don’t have the time.

Tyson’s analysis is based on eighty-eight sue and settle cases arising under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered species act during the Obama administration.  This data set includes twenty-eight cases that were missed by the Chamber of Commerce in its 2013 report, Sue and Settle: Regulating Behind Closed Doors.  In his analysis Tyson is careful to distinguish between decision-forcing consent decrees, which simply require the agency to do what it is statutorily required to do and do not have a potentially adverse effect on public participation in rulemaking, and substantive consent degrees, in which the agency agrees to propose a particular regulatory change, with dismissal of the litigation dependent upon adoption of that change after public notice and comment. Of the total eighty-eight sue and settle suits, seventy-nine were brought by environmental groups.  But all but four of these suits by environmentalists sought decision-forcing consent decrees, not substantive outcomes. And in three of those four cases, there was at least one industry intervenor that had a right to be heard on the proposed decree.  Tyson concludes: “Sue-and-settle, when used by environmental group plaintiffs, is not principally about secret, backdoor rulemaking.” Instead, overwhelmingly, environmental groups used litigation to enforce existing statutory requirements. 

Ironically, although industry brought far fewer sue and settle suits overall (only nine compared to the environmental groups’ 79), five of those suits resulted in consent decrees with substantive terms. And there was no environmental intervenor in any of those cases to contest entry of the consent decree. Based on the data, industry used sue and settle to achieve substantive outcomes more often than environmental groups. And the total number of substantive sue and settle suits by industry and environmental groups was relatively small (9, or 10% of the 88 cases). Improving public participation is always worth attention, but one wonders what all the fuss was about.

Pruitt Banishes “Sue and Settle” – A Solution In Search of a Problem?

Posted on November 27, 2017 by Seth Jaffe

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt earlier this month issued a Directive prohibiting the practice of “sue and settle.”  He also issued a Memorandum to senior staff explaining in more detail some of the concerns about “sue and settle.”  They are two very strange documents.

As to the substance of how EPA will handle future citizen suit claims, there are some specific concrete steps which individuals and groups across the political spectrum actually can support.  These include:  (1) making more information available to the public about notices of intent to sue and filed complaints; (2) involvement of affected states; (3) maintenance of a data base of citizen suits; and (4) providing a public explanation and rationale for settlement of citizen suits; and (5) providing opportunities for public comment, even where not otherwise required by law.

So far, so good.  However, at a certain point, the Administrator seems to have gone off the rails.  First, one final substantive point – the Directive purports to forbid the payment of attorneys’ fees in any settlement, on the ground that, in a settlement, there is no “prevailing party.”  Of course, if a citizen’s group has a meritorious claim, why would it give up its claims to attorneys’ fees?

What’s really strange about the documents, though, is that they make no effort to demonstrate that there has been such a thing as “sue and settle.”  Instead, the Directive merely states that:

"It has been reported, however, that EPA has previously sought to resolve lawsuits filed against it through consent decrees and settlement agreements that appeared to be the result of collusion with outside groups."

The Administrator pledges that the “days of this regulation through litigation, or ‘sue and settle’ are terminated.”

The Memorandum is even better, citing to the Federalist Papers and the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson.  I’m almost persuaded that this is the greatest threat to the American Way of Life since the fluoridation of water.  Far be it from me to compare the Administrator to General Jack D. Ripper, but this is what first came to my mind after reading these documents.

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: An Agency Cannot Revise Regulations In a Consent Decree

Posted on May 22, 2013 by Seth Jaffe

In a decision that should not have come as a surprise to anyone, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled late last month, in Conservation Northwest v. Sherman, that the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies implementing the Northwest Forest Plan could not amend the NFP without complying with the procedural requirements of the Federal Land Policy Management Act.  The rationale of the decision should apply far more broadly than just the FLPMA, however.  It should apply to any action by any agency purporting to amend agency regulations that would otherwise be subject to procedural requirements, such as notice-and-comment rulemaking, without complying with those procedural protections.

The history of the case itself it tortuous and not really relevant here.  The short version is that the agency defendants sought to resolve citizen litigation regarding the “Survey and Manage” provisions of the NFP by entering into a consent decree that would amend certain elements of Survey and Manage.  It was uncontested that, if the agencies had sought to do so outside the context of litigation, they would have had to follow FLPMA requirements.  The agencies – and the District Court which upheld entry of the consent decree – argued that, because approval of a consent decree is a “judicial act”, it is not subject to the FLPMA procedures.

I’ve got to say, that argument just seems like a non sequitur to me.  In any case, the 9th Circuit rejected it, concluding that:

"a district court abuses its discretion when it enters a consent decree that permanently and substantially amends an agency rule that would have otherwise been subject to statutory rulemaking procedures."

Well, yeah.

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States Investigate EPA's "Sue-and-Settle" Practice

Posted on January 15, 2013 by Mark Walker

The Attorney Generals of thirteen states (Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming) are investigating EPA's sue-and-settle practice.  At issue is the EPA's practice of entering into voluntary settlements of lawsuits brought by environmental groups, through consent decrees, in which the EPA commits itself to promulgate environmental rules and regulations, often under strict time schedules, without input from other stakeholders and impacted parties, including the states.  Often-times the EPA also reimburses the environmental group for its attorney fees.  Although the stakeholders may have input in the subsequent rulemaking process, the concern is that the effectiveness of such input may be limited because certain results are prescribed by the voluntary settlement or because the agreed schedule effectively limits meaningful input and consideration.

These same concerns were also recently discussed in the June 28, 2012, hearing before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Hearing statements and testimony provided good descriptions of (i) how sue-and-settle settlements are a form of "off ramp" rulemaking bypassing the traditional rulemaking concepts of transparency, public participation and judicial review; (ii) how billions of dollars in added costs and millions of lost jobs have resulted from these off ramp settlements and why these added regulatory burdens may not have resulted had the traditional rulemaking process been followed; and (iii) the specific impact of EPA's sue-and-settle settlement upon the Regional Haze rules.

On August 10, 2012, the thirteen Attorney Generals submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to EPA.  Among other things, the request seeks communications between EPA and 80 identified "interested organizations", and specifically identifies 33 sue-and-settle settlements entered into by EPA in the last three years.  After noting in a press release that EPA entered into one consent decree on the same day the lawsuit was filed, the states seek to determine whether there was collusion to advance a common agenda between the environmental groups and EPA.  The FOIA request’s stated purpose is to provide a report to be furnished to the states and Congress outlining EPA's practice.  So far, the EPA has done little but object to producing documents, seeking to impose fees upon the states even though the request should be exempt from fees.  No meaningful production of documents has occurred.

Certainly there are some good arguments to be made regarding the benefits of allowing citizen groups to file lawsuits to hold EPA accountable. Similarly, there are articles refuting the suggestion of collusion concerning certain prior EPA settlements.  Nevertheless, where important environmental policy issues are at stake with far reaching economic consequences, there should never be any question about collusion or secrecy.  Transparency should always be the watchword.  EPA’s production of the requested documents would do much to advance the goal of transparency.  If the settlements were in the best interest of the public, they should be able to withstand the glare of public scrutiny.