Posted on March 10, 2016
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 because 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.)
Posted on February 24, 2016
The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has promulgated new regulations involving the original procurement and renewal of Right-of-Ways (ROW) on tribal and allottee lands which take effect on March 22, 2016. These new rules will replace those in place since 1947, creating a series of significant problems. This post lists the problems and suggests a legislative solution.
1) Majority Consent of Life Estate Heirs is Needed for ROW to be Granted or Renewed
The new rules limit the length of a ROW to 20 years. The ROWs are not subject to state or local laws, and the new rules impose consent and approval requirements that do not appear in the current regulations. Under the current law, voluntary agreements could be struck between tribes, allottees, and a company, so long as the BIA Regional Director approved the deal. The BIA would approve if a majority of the allottee landowners consented and the amounts of money paid for the ROW were not less than the fair market value (FMV) of the allotment parcel. Under the new rules, however, the company must obtain a majority consent for the original ROW or renewal thereof, not only from the living life estate allottees, but from their heirs as well. This presents a huge obstacle, as companies will now have to find each of the heirs and then attempt to bargain with them individually. Under the current rules, if agreement could not be reached, then the company was free to use a 1907 statute to condemn the allottee land but never the tribal land.
2) Life Estate Holders Can Withdraw Previously Granted Consents
In two separate New Mexico ROW cases involving Western Refining’s pipeline and Public Service of New Mexico’s (PNM) overhead wires, the companies both originally obtained the written consent of a majority of the life estate holders who were paid fair market value for their consent. However, upon the BIA Regional Director finding a lack of a majority of heirs consenting, certain life estate holders informed the BIA that they were “unconsenting” in order to hold out for better compensation, even though they had cashed the original checks. Because the BIA allowed the holdouts’ action of “unconsenting” to stand, the companies lost their majority consent of life estate holders. Attorneys for the life estate holders are now suing PNM for trespass in federal court in Albuquerque.
3) Fair Market Value Has Become a Floor in Negotiations Rather Than an Appraisal Standard
Since the 1947 statute came into existence, the fair market value (FMV), as determined by BIA-qualified appraisers, of the allotment acreage to be crossed by the pipeline served as the negotiation basis between the company and individual allottees. The allottees, knowing that their land could be condemned under the 1907 statute dealing with ROWs, often bargained for a payment that was two or three times FMV. However, under the new regulations, FMV is a starting point, non-binding and irrelevant to an allottee who believes that the sky is the limit when dealing with large corporations.
4) The Condemnation Alternative is Under Attack Due to Tribal Ownership of Undivided Interests in Allotments
In the Public Service of New Mexico federal district court litigation, PNM sued the allottees of several allotments under the New Mexico condemnation statutes after failing to obtain the consent of a majority of life estate heirs for a 20-year renewal. The federal judge dismissed the condemnation lawsuit, because recently deceased allottees left their interests to the Navajo Nation. Even though those interests amounted to less than 1% of the entire allotment, the court labeled that interest tribal land, recognized the Navajo Nation’s sovereign immunity from suit, declared the Navajo Nation an indispensable party, and dismissed the lawsuit. PNM is appealing the dismissal to the Tenth Circuit. Without the ability to condemn, pipelines will be left only with choice of either paying ransom under the 1947 statute or facing allottee trespass actions.
Western Refining has also filed a condemnation suit against the unconsenting allottees under the New Mexico condemnation statutes. The case is before a different judge than the PNM case and is currently stayed pending a decision from the Interior Board of Indian Appeals on the majority consent of heirs issue.
The best solution to the four problems above requires the active involvement of the Legislative Branch.
Utilizing its plenary authority concerning tribal issues, Congress should pass amendments to the 1907 and 1947 statutes or create new legislation supplanting the current law that:
- Eliminates the need for heirs to consent
- Eliminates the ability of consenters to unconsent once consideration is paid
- Re-establishes the sufficiency of fair market value as the basis for the compensation to be paid
- Guarantees the right of pipeline owners to condemn allottee land regardless of partial tribal ownership
Nothing less than the free flow of energy-oriented interstate commerce is at stake.
Posted on February 18, 2016
Citizen suits under federal environmental laws have been under fire through criticism of “sue and settle” where agencies, in particular the U.S. EPA, have been accused of intentionally relinquishing statutory discretion for the sake of settling lawsuits without participation by affected third parties. From this perspective, the scope of citizen suits has broadened. However, two recent federal circuit court opinions curb this growth.
On January 6, 2016, the Third Circuit and Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeals issued opinions that underscore certain limitations in the citizen suit provisions. The Third Circuit examined a Clean Air Act citizen suit in Group Against Smog and Pollution, Inc. v. Shenango Inc. (No. 15-2041) (GASP). The Sixth Circuit examined a Clean Water Act citizen suit in Askins v. Ohio Dept. of Agriculture, Ohio Envtl. Prot. Agency, U.S. EPA (No. 15-3147). Both courts affirmed dismissal of the citizen suits by the district courts based on statutory limitations Congress placed in each statute.
These two cases highlight a couple of important components of citizen suits. First, citizen suits are to serve as a backup to the non-discretionary functions and enforcement responsibilities of the States and the EPA. As the U.S. Supreme Court has said, “the citizen suit is meant to supplement rather than to supplant governmental action.” The Sixth Circuit stated, “Paradoxically, [Plaintiffs’] expansive reading of the citizen-suit provision would grant citizen greater enforcement authority than the U.S. EPA. . . . Congress did not intend to give citizens greater and faster enforcement authority against a state than the U.S. EPA.”
The other important component highlighted is the role of the “diligent prosecution bar” against citizen suits. Citizen suits are prohibited if the EPA or State agency “has commenced and is diligently prosecuting” the matter. While most courts seem willing to restrict citizen suits when there is clear prosecution (civil or criminal) in a state or federal court, the answer is less clear when there is no active or concluded matter at the courthouse or the enforcement action is only administrative. In GASP, the Third Circuit slightly tilted the bar in favor of the agency and regulated entity by concluding that if the agency has diligently prosecuted a suit, the presence of a final judgment, consent decree, or consent order and agreement would likely prevent a citizen suit challenge. This is logical given that environmental enforcement proceedings that are filed in court often, if not always, result in a judicially enforceable consent decree or consent order and agreement in which the regulated entity must fulfill specified obligations or be subject to stipulated penalties. It also provides certainty to the agreement reached between the agency and the regulated entity, which benefits all involved.
While these recent decisions were not momentous court opinions, the Third and Sixth Circuits did provide a bit more clarity to the role citizen and how our environmental laws are enforced. In this arena, I think we all would agree that a little clarity can go a long way.
Posted on February 2, 2016
Tensions ran high in eastern Oregon in early January 2016 as an armed group seized the headquarters of a national wildlife refuge. The occupation began as a protest of the sentencing of ranchers who were convicted of arson on federal lands in Oregon. The occupation subsequently became a rally for opening federal public lands to all. Entering the fray, albeit indirectly, the Ninth Circuit in its January 15, 2016 decision in United States v. Hage, held that defendants’ unauthorized grazing of cattle on federal lands in Nevada was unlawful. Contrary to the views of the Oregon occupiers that they are defending the Constitution, the Ninth Circuit held that grazing cattle without a grazing permit violated federal statutes as well as the state law of trespass, noting that a grazing permit is “a revocable privilege” and is not a “property right.” The Ninth Circuit rejected the district court’s ruling that the government cannot claim trespass if the cattle stayed within a reasonable distance of a source to which defendants had water rights. Concluding that the district judge “harbored animus toward the federal agencies,” the Ninth Circuit requested the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Nevada to assign the case to a different judge on remand. Meanwhile, back in Oregon, several of the protesters have been arrested. One was killed.
Posted on January 11, 2016
Seth Jaffe’s recent post about the tension between Colorado’s governor and attorney general over who has the right to speak on behalf of Colorado in the Clean Power Plan litigation brought to mind the very first piece of environmental litigation I ever worked on, Village of Wilsonville v. SCA Services. In the late 1970s, SCA (which later became part of Chemical Waste Management) began operating a large hazardous waste landfill, fully permitted by Illinois EPA, in Wilsonville, Illinois, and the residents were predictably displeased. (Hint to those of you who operate similar NIMBY-ish facilities – don’t do as SCA did and disseminate marketing materials displaying the site as the “bullseye target” on a regional map showing concentric circles of distances to the facility.)
Not satisfied with some pretty effective self-help efforts (e.g. the Village dug a three-foot wide trench for “sewer repairs” across the only road into the site, thereby halting all truck traffic into and out of the facility), the Village sued SCA and Illinois EPA (the permitting agency) seeking permit revocation and a halt to operation of the facility. The case got off to an unusual start in the trial court (our firm was not retained until the unsuccessful appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court) when then-Attorney General William Scott, who had appeared in the case on behalf of Illinois EPA, stuck his finger in the air, felt which way the wind was blowing, and abandoned the defense of Illinois EPA to file his own complaint and join with the Village against the defendants, including the State agency. Perhaps unlike Colorado, Illinois law is pretty clear that the Attorney General has independent enforcement powers when it comes to environmental matters, so Scott’s volte-face didn’t cause much of a stir other than at Illinois EPA, which had never before been left hanging in the wind like this.
Bill Scott probably remains the Illinois Attorney General best known for environmental enforcement; the first line in his obituary correctly notes that he “achieved an international reputation for his battle on behalf of the environment during his four terms” as Attorney General. Scott tried but never made it to the Governor’s chair, though he clearly had what it takes. Like Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, George Ryan, and Rod Blagojevich - Illinois governors #33, 36, 39 and 40 respectively - Scott later served time in federal prison.
Over the years, notable cases of tension between disparate agencies of the same sovereign have spread from Wilsonville to Colorado to China. A recent news article notes, “Prosecutors in eastern China have filed a lawsuit against a county-level environmental protection department, accusing it of ‘failing to fulfil its regulatory duties’ in its supervision of a local sewage firm.” Apparently the United States is a successful exporter of something; I’m not sure what to call it, but it isn’t as desirable as the Fab Four or iPhones.
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 9, 2015
I have never understood why 43 states – including the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts – have independent elected attorneys general. I’m sure my new colleague, former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, would disagree with me, but I just don’t think that the value of having an AG independent of the Governor is worth the lack of policy consistency. Exhibit A to my argument is the current dispute in Colorado between Governor John Hickenlooper and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman concerning EPA’s Clean Power Plan. What’s the problem?
Hickenlooper supports the CPP; Coffman opposes it. Indeed, Coffman does not just oppose it; on behalf of the State of Colorado, she’s joined the litigation seeking to stop the rule. Excuse me, but shouldn’t the Governor speak for the citizens of Colorado on such matters? Absent some kind of conflict of interest requiring independent counsel, the Governor has to be the boss. I’m sure most citizens see it that way; it would be nice if reality mirrored perception.
I’d assume that the Colorado Governor has authority to retain separate counsel – and I hope my friends in Colorado will tell me if I’m wrong. I’d love to see Governor Hickenlooper retain his own counsel and intervene in the litigation on the side of EPA. What would the Court do if Colorado appeared on both sides of the V?
Posted on October 23, 2015
So the Clean Power Plan has been published in the Federal Register. For those who cannot get enough, you can find all of the important materials, including EPA’s Technical Support Documents, on EPA’s web site for the CPP.
Not surprisingly, given the number of suits brought before the CPP was even finalized, opponents were literally lining up at the courthouse steps to be the first to sue. West Virginia apparently won the race and is the named plaintiff in the main petition filed so far.
Perhaps because Oklahoma has been one of the most persistent, and vocal, opponents of the CPP, this called to mind the origin of the Sooner State’s nickname – which seems particularly apt, since Oklahoma was one of the states that couldn’t wait for the rule to be promulgated to sue.
Oklahoma is not actually among the plaintiffs in the West Virginia suit. Oklahoma filed its own petition today. One wonders whether Oklahoma was banished from playing with the other states as a result of its impatience. Unlikely, since most of those in the West Virginia suit also filed early, but it did call to mind that other famous event in the history of the west, as recorded in Blazing Saddles.
Posted on October 9, 2015
Does this make sense to you? Eighteen states petitioned the Sixth Circuit to challenge the new rule adopted by EPA and the Corps of Engineers defining “waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Then the petitioners move the court to dismiss their own petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but at the same time request a stay of the rule. And then, the court acknowledges it may not have jurisdiction but issues the stay anyway! That is exactly what Sixth Circuit did in the case published today.
This case is among many seeking to block the rule. The Clean Water Act confers original jurisdiction upon the circuit courts for challenges to “effluent limitations or other limitations.” But as reported earlier in this space, thirteen states convinced a federal district judge in North Dakota that he had jurisdiction because the WOTUS rule is merely definitional, and neither an effluent nor other limitation.
The court concluded that petitioners have a good chance at prevailing on the merits, that the rule exceeds “guidance” given by the Supreme Court in extending CWA jurisdiction too broadly. The court also indicated that the final rule may have strayed too far from the notice given in the proposed rule in its definitions of jurisdictional waters.
The majority was not troubled by the fact the parties are still briefing subject matter jurisdiction, finding that it had plenty of authority to preserve the status quo pending a jurisdictional determination. The dissent took the view that the proper sequence is to first decide jurisdiction, then decide on a national stay of a rule years in the making. Pants first, then shoes.
Did the majority consider the situation an emergency that required immediate action? No, the court found that petitioners were not persuasive that irreparable harm would occur without a stay, but neither could the court find any harm with freezing implementation of the rule. The reasoning seems to be that we’ve muddled through so far, let’s take a step back and consider all the implications before implementation.
Why do the states prefer to go after the rule in the district courts instead of the circuit courts of appeal? Maybe they believe they can forum shop to find conservative judges and build a favorable body of case law before appealing. Or maybe they believe they can more directly attack the science underlying the rule or otherwise augment the administrative record. Whatever the reasons, the ultimate return of this issue to the Supreme Court will be delayed and the law dealing with regulation of wetland fills will remain as confused as ever.
Posted on September 10, 2015
On Wednesday, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the latest effort to stay EPA’s Clean Power Plan before it has even been promulgated in the Federal Register. The Court simply stated that “petitioners have not satisfied the stringent standards that apply to petitions for extraordinary writs that seek to stay agency action.”
Really? Tell me something I did not know.
I’m sorry. The CPP is a far-ranging rule. There are strong legal arguments against its validity. Those arguments may prevail. I see it as about a 50/50 bet. This I do know, however. The sky isn’t falling. The sky won’t fall, even for West Virginia, if the rule is affirmed and implemented. Those opposed to regulation have made these arguments from time immemorial – certainly no later than when Caesar tried to regulate the amount of lead in Roman goblets. And if I’ve got that one wrong, at least no later than Ethyl Corporation v. EPA, when opponents of EPA’s rulemaking on leaded gasoline thought that the rule would mean the end of western civilization.
I’m not naïve. I understand that these arguments are political as well as legal. I just think that opponents of EPA rulemaking undermine their own political position in the long run by repeatedly predicting catastrophe, even though catastrophe never arrives.
Posted on September 2, 2015
A whole lot of craziness is going on in federal district and appellate courts all over the country right now. About what? About judicial review of EPA’s recent “WOTUS” rule under the Clean Water Act (CWA). So I can avoid wheel re-invention, see the very recent ACOEL blogs by Seth Jaffe and Rick Glick.
So what’s the problem? You might find a lot to hate about the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and I could name a few others, but at least they all have one good thing going for them: they all provide in a crystal clear manner that judicial review of EPA’s national rules under those statutes will lie exclusively with the D.C. Circuit. No ifs, ands, buts, or maybes.
For reasons I have never understood (and I have been trying since the 1970s), Congress in its infinite wisdom chose a different path in the CWA. In Section 509, they listed seven types of actions that must be reviewed in a federal Court of Appeal (not necessarily the D.C. Circuit) and left any other type of action to be reviewed initially in federal district court.
Over the years, a lot of mixed case law has developed regarding EPA’s CWA rules that don’t fit neatly within one of the seven types of actions Section 509 has specified for Court of Appeals review. Quite predictably, as reflected in Seth’s and Rick’s recent blogs, three district courts last week reached conflicting results over whether WOTUS fits within the seven types. In its WOTUS preamble, EPA included a discussion about confusion in the courts over the issue and took no position on whether WOTUS should initially be reviewed in a district court or Court of Appeals.
So how crazy is this: right now, we have (1) a ruling from one district court judge in North Dakota finding he has jurisdiction and enjoining EPA from enforcing WOTUS; (2) a statement from EPA saying the agency will honor his injunction only in the 13 States that were plaintiffs in that action; (3) an order from that judge directing the parties to brief the issue of whether EPA has authority to honor his ruling in only those states; (4) decisions from two other federal district judges holding WOTUS judicial review must be brought only in a Court of Appeals; (5) numerous cases filed in several circuit Courts of Appeals that have been transferred (at least for now) to the 6th Circuit; (6) an almost certain EPA appeal to the 8th Circuit in attempt to reverse the North Dakota judge’s injunction; and (7) WOTUS review cases filed in numerous other federal district courts by lots of parties with various motions still pending.
This is early September, and I can’t imagine how this won’t get a lot crazier over the next few months. Congress in its infinite wisdom!
Posted on August 31, 2015
With so many challenges filed in so many venues to EPA’s Waters of the United States or WOTUS rule, it seemed inevitable that some plaintiffs somewhere would find a sympathetic court. And so it is that thirteen states found U. S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson to preliminarily enjoin the “exceptionally expansive view” of the government’s reach under the Clean Water Act.
This case is interesting from a couple of perspectives. First, Congress conferred original jurisdiction for challenges to EPA “effluent limitations or other limitations” and for permit decisions upon the Circuit Courts of Appeal. In the past two days, district court judges in West Virginiaand Georgiaconcluded they lacked jurisdiction over challenges to the WOTUS rule on that basis. Judge Erickson, however, did not feel so constrained.
The judge found that the WOTUS rule is simply definitional, and neither an effluent limitation nor an “other limitation” on states’ discretion. Further, the judge found that the rule “has at best an attenuated connection to any permitting process.” The conclusion states’ discretion is not affected is a bit odd in that the judge later concludes that the state plaintiffs satisfied all the criteria for a preliminary injunction, including irreparable harm caused by the rule.
Second, Judge Erickson plays on an internecine dispute between EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in an unusual way. In my first sentence I refer to the WOTUS rule as EPA’s, although the rule was jointly adopted by EPA and the Corps. However, recently leaked internal government memorandaindicate that the Corps disavows much of the technical support and policy choices underlying the rule. Judge Erickson obliquely references these memoranda and seems to rely on them to conclude that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their challenge.
Typically, courts are loathe to rely on internal documents of uncertain provenance, as they prefer to leave the government room to openly discuss policies under development without fear its deliberations would be disclosed. But in this case, Judge Erickson notes that he has not been presented with the full record for the WOTUS rulemaking, and so felt justified in citing the Corps memos.
As Seth Jaffe has observed, it seems likely that Judge Erickson’s jurisdictional determination will not stand, and his reliance on the confidential exchanges between the Corps and EPA is a little disturbing. However, his order highlights EPA’s poor management of this rulemaking, which has led to challenges from states, property rights advocates and environmentalists—a kind of anti-EPA trifecta.
As previously noted, EPA released its draft WOTUS rule before the work of the Science Advisory Board was complete, thus raising questions as to the rule’s scientific objectivity. Then EPA seemingly disregarded the technical concerns raised by its rulemaking partner, the Corps. Any WOTUS rulemaking would be controversial, but EPA has unnecessarily raised the bar for public acceptance.
Posted on August 28, 2015
On Wednesday, Judge Irene Keeley of the Northern District of West Virginia held that district courts do not have jurisdiction to hear challenges to EPA’s rule defining waters of the United States, because courts of appeal have original jurisdiction over “any effluent limitation or other limitation.” Yesterday, Judge Lisa Wood of the Southern District of Georgia agreed.
Later yesterday, Judge Ralph Erickson of the District of North Dakota disagreed. Finding that a definitional rule is not an effluent limitation and is not any “other limitation”, because it “places no new burden or requirements on the States”, Judge Erickson concluded that the district courts do have jurisdiction. Addressing the merits, Judge Erickson concluded the states were likely to prevail, and would suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction. He thus enjoined enforcement of the rule in the 13 states involved in the case before him.
I’ll go out on a limb and assert that Judge Erickson’s decision is not likely to survive. Why not?
- Both the Georgia and West Virginia opinions cogently explain why the WOTUS rule is an “other limitation under existing CWA cases.
- Judge Erickson was clearly trying to have his cake and eat it, too. It is, to put it mildly, internally inconsistent for Judge Erickson to conclude that he had jurisdiction to hear the case, because the “rule places no new burden or requirements on the States”, while ruling on the merits that the States will suffer irreparable harm if the rule goes into effect. If they will suffer harm, it is precisely because the rule will limit them in new ways – which is pretty much what his own opinion says.
- As Judge Keeley noted, providing consolidated jurisdiction over all challenges to the rule in one court of appeals furthers
“the congressional goal of ensuring prompt resolution of challenges to EPA’s actions.” That scheme would be undermined by … a “patchwork quilt” of district court rulings.
Based on these three decisions in just the last two days, it would seem that truer words were never spoken.
Posted on July 28, 2015
ACOEL Fellow John Cruden, head of DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, recently gave this speech to the ABA Litigation Section on the current direction of federal environmental enforcement efforts. The speech focuses on efforts to coordinate with and leverage local, state, regional and international partners.
Posted on July 21, 2015
On June 25, 2015, The Hague District Court in the Netherlands issued an order and opinion requiring the Netherlands to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. This level is more ambitious than the 17 percent reduction goal to which the Dutch government has currently committed. The case, Urgenda Foundation v. State of the Netherlands suggests what courts may be willing to do when government policy lags behind what climate science indicates is needed.
Urgenda sued the government in tort under the Dutch Civil Code on behalf of itself and 886 individuals, claiming among other things that “the State is in breach of its duty of care for taking insufficient measures to prevent dangerous climate change.” For U.S. lawyers, accustomed to limited governmental tort liability under federal and state law, the breadth of this claim may be startling. But it was also novel, though less so, to the court, which explained that this legal issue “has never before been answered in Dutch proceedings.”
Although the state has considerable discretion in policy making for climate change, the court said, that discretion is constrained by both the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Objectives and principles of the Climate Change Convention and the TFEU that constrain Dutch discretion, the court said, include “protection of the climate system, for the benefit of current and future generations, based on fairness;” the precautionary principle, and consideration of “available scientific and technical information.”
Urgenda’s case was based on numerous scientific reports, including the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which said that Annex I countries (including both the Netherlands and the United States), need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80-95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, to limit the global temperature increase to 2.0 degrees Celsius. Parties to the Convention on Climate Change have agreed that a temperature increase above that level (equivalent to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) would be dangerous.
After analyzing multiple factors relevant to the appropriate duty of care, the court concluded that the state “has acted negligently and therefore unlawfully towards Urgenda by starting from a reduction target for 2020 of less than 25% percent compared to the year 1990.” It ordered a 25 percent reduction, saying there are “insufficient grounds for the lower limit” of a 40% reduction from 1990 levels specified in the 2007 IPCC report.
Although the case was decided under Dutch legal rules that are quite different from our own, and may be appealed, it has significance to U.S. lawyers. First, it shows great respect for climate change science, describing IPCC and other scientific reports in considerable detail. The case therefore underscores the important role that courts can play in affirming the validity of climate change science.
Second, the court’s willingness to interpret domestic law in ways consistent with international commitments, including those in the Convention on Climate Change as well as the commitment to keep warming to 2.0 degrees Celsius, raises an interesting and important question about whether U.S. domestic laws related to climate change also should be interpreted in ways consistent with international commitments. U.S. courts have often held that statutes should be construed in a manner consistent with treaties and other international obligations.
Finally, the decision indicates the value of judicial intervention as a way of forcing governments and businesses to do more than they are doing. Additional legal support for such cases was provided, in March 2015, by the issuance of the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations. These principles were developed by a group of legal experts from around the world. The central idea is that “[s]tates and enterprises must take measures, based on” the precautionary principle, “to ensure that the global average surface temperature increase never exceeds pre-industrial temperature by more than 2 degrees Celsius.” Many sources of local, national, and international law support these principles, the experts said, including “international human rights law, environmental law and tort law.”
According to a report issued on July 16, 2015 by the American Meteorological Society, 2014 was the warmest year on record. As the effects of climate change intensify, there may be more such litigation, and decisions like this could become more common.
Posted on June 30, 2015
In Jonathan Cannon’s excellent post on Monday’s Supreme Court decision in Michigan v. EPA, he noted that the majority and the minority aren’t actually that far apart in their views on whether EPA must consider costs in this rulemaking. I have a slightly different take: They may not be that far apart, but they’re both wrong.
In fact, the issue in Michigan v. EPA seems so simple that the MATS rule could have been affirmed in a two-page opinion. Judge Scalia notes that the word “appropriate” – on which the entire 44 pages of the majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions focus – is “capacious”. I agree. If so, and if Chevron means anything, “appropriate” is surely capacious enough to allow for an interpretation that does not include cost considerations. That should have been the end of the case.
I do feel compelled to note, however, that Justice Kagan’s dissent also got it wrong, in at least three ways:
- I think she’s flat wrong to suggest that, because the MATS “floor” is based on the top 12% of facilities already in operation, that means that establishment of the floor already takes cost into account. As Justice Scalia cogently notes, those existing facilities may well have been under their own regulatory duress – a duress that may not have considered cost.
- Justice Kagan confuses cost-benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis. For any given goal sought by EPA, the various options provided by the MATS rule may allow power generators to attain the goal in the most cost-effective means possible, but if even the most cost-effective approach were to yield $10B in costs and $10M in benefits, that would fail the cost-benefit test for most people.
- Finally, and most importantly, Justice Kagan got the consequences wrong. Instead of suggesting, as she did, that the majority decision,
"deprives the American public of the pollution control measures that the responsible Agency, acting well within its delegated authority, found would save many, many lives,"
she should have made the point that the majority decision will have no impact on EPA or the MATS rule. The Supreme Court did not vacate the rule; it merely remanded the rule to the Court of Appeals. Justice Kagan’s position should have been that EPA still has sufficient discretion, even on the existing record, to defend the MATS rule within the confines of the majority opinion. Instead, Justice Kagan gave ammunition to those who oppose the rule, by suggesting that it cannot be saved.
A pox on both their houses.
Posted on June 29, 2015
Recent events have me pondering this question.
Most notably, in two court decisions last week, courts ordered the State of Washington and the government of the Netherlands to take more aggressive action against climate change. In the Washington case, in response to a complaint from eight teenagers, a trial court judge has ordered the Washington Department of Ecology to reconsider a petition filed by the teenagers requesting reductions in GHG emissions. Similarly, in the Netherlands, a court ordered the government to reduce GHG emissions by 25% within five years. The Dutch case was brought under human rights and tort law, not under existing Dutch environmental laws.
I have been very skeptical of the use of nuisance-type litigation to require more aggressive government regulatory efforts. I still think comprehensive market-based regulation is the best approach. However, in the absence of aggressive action in the United States and world-wide, these suits are going to increase in number.
So, how are they similar to the same-sex marriage issue? First, as noted in Obergefell, courts were initially – and for some time – not just unfriendly to litigation efforts in support of same-sex marriage, they were positively dismissive. Second, there is the gradual increase over time in the litigation.
Next, there is also the change over time in the scientific understanding of the issues. While same-sex marriage has always been, on both sides, primarily a moral issue, it would be wrong to ignore the role that an increasing understanding of the genetics of sexual preference has played in the debate. Similarly, the move towards an overwhelming weight of evidence, not just that climate change is occurring, but that it is anthropogenic, has obviously been important to the climate change debate.
Finally, while the moral issues in same sex marriage may seem to distinguish it from the climate issue, the recent papal encyclical makes clear that there are moral aspects to the climate change debate as well.
I have no crystal ball. I do not know whether we are going to see a groundswell, and then, perhaps, a tidal wave that will somehow overcome the gridlock in United States and world politics on climate change. There are differences in the two issues, most obviously in the short-run economic costs of addressing climate change. Nonetheless, I do know that it wouldn’t surprise me if the tidal wave comes, and relatively soon.
Posted on June 5, 2015
Earlier this week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected both industry and environmental group petitions challenging EPA’s determination of what is a solid waste in the context of Clean Air Act standards for incinerators and other combustion units. It wasn’t actually a difficult case, but it does provide a lesson for Congress. When the technical nature of EPA’s decisions was layered on top of the fundamental deference given EPA’s interpretation of the statute under Chevron, the petitioners were never going to prevail:
We afford great deference to EPA’s determinations based on technical matters within its area of expertise.
The crux of the environmental petitioners’ case was that certain of the materials, such as scrap tires, exempted by EPA from the definition of solid waste, are unambiguously “discarded” within the meaning of RCRA, so that EPA did not have discretion to exempt them. Unfortunately, as the Court noted:
the term “discarded” is “marked by the kind of ambiguity demanding resolution by the agency’s delegated lawmaking powers.”
In other words, given the current state of decrepitude of the non-delegation doctrine, when Congress enacts legislation using words as vague as “discarded”, it is essentially telling EPA to figure out what Congress meant to say. And when EPA does figure out what Congress meant to say, the Courts are not going to disturb EPA’s interpretation.
For those in Congress who don’t like the way EPA implements statutes for which it is responsible, they might learn a lesson from Pogo.
Posted on May 7, 2015
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals just reversed and remanded EPA’s rule allowing backup generators to operate for up to 100 hours per year as necessary for demand response. It’s an important decision that could have lessons for EPA and the regulated community across a wide range of circumstances, including eventual challenges to EPA’s proposed GHG rule.
EPA said that the rule was necessary to allow demand response programs to succeed while maintaining grid reliability. Commenters had argued that, by encouraging greater use of uncontrolled backup generators, EPA’s rule makes other generators less economic, thus creating a negative feedback loop, with less and less power generated by controlled units, resulting in greater and greater need for uncontrolled backup generators. Here’s what the Court concluded:
- EPA failed adequately to respond to the commenters’ arguments. Noting that “an agency must respond sufficiently to “enable [the court] to see what major issues of policy were ventilated,” the Court instead found that EPA “refused to engage with the commenters’ dynamic markets argument."
- To the extent EPA did respond, it was “self-contradictory”, arguing that it was not justifying the regulation on reliability grounds, even though the final rule said that it was based on reliability concerns.
- The 100-hour rule was based on faulty evidence. EPA relied on evidence that backup sources had to be available at least 60 hours to participate in a PJM “Emergency Load Response Program.” However, PJM itself noted that this minimum does not apply to individual engines.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while EPA justified the rule on reliability grounds, the Court stated that:
grid reliability is not a subject of the Clean Air Act and is not the province of EPA.
This last issue is the part of the opinion that could have some bearing on judicial review of EPA’s GHG rule. The Court noted that there was no evidence that FERC or NERC had participated in the backup generator rule or provided comments to EPA. When, during the course of the rulemaking, a commenter suggested that EPA work with FERC, this was EPA’s response:
the rulemaking’s purpose was to address emissions from the emergency engines “and to minimize such pollutants within the Agency’s authority under the CAA. It is not within the scope of this rulemaking to determine which resources are used for grid reliability, nor is it the responsibility of the EPA to decide which type of power is used to address emergency situations.”
This statement did not make the Court happy:
EPA cannot have it both ways it [sic] cannot simultaneously rely on reliability concerns and then brush off comments about those concerns as beyond its purview. EPA’s response to comments suggests that its 100-hour rule, to the extent that it impacts system reliability, is not “the product of agency expertise.”
And why is this relevant for the GHG rule?
First, because EPA had better consult with FERC and NERC, so that it can defend any statements it makes in the GHG rule about its impact, if any, on reliability. Second, it’s clear that the court will not show deference to EPA’s conclusions about reliability, since that is not within the scope of EPA’s expertise.
Posted on April 29, 2015
A plaintiff seeking to characterize a business transaction as “disposal” under CERCLA may now feel like a polar bear looking for a patch of thick ice.
On March 20, 2015, a divided panel on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Consolidation Coal Co. v. Ga. Power Co., affirmed a District Court's ruling holding that transformer sales did not evidence an intent on to dispose of hazardous materials, and therefore did not support a finding of “arranger liability” under “CERCLA” even when words like “scrapping” and “disposal” were used. Looking to the framework of the Supreme Court’s 2009 ruling in Burlington Northern Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co. v. United States and the Fourth Circuit’s 1998 ruling in Pneumo Abex Corp. v. High Point, Thomasville & Denton Railroad Co., the 2-1 majority held that while a party who sells a product that contains hazardous substances also “‘intends’ to rid itself of that hazardous substance in some metaphysical sense… [an] intent to sell a product that happens to contain a hazardous substance is not equivalent to intent to dispose of a hazardous substance under CERCLA.” Rather, in the court’s words, “there must be something more.”
Georgia Power, a major Georgia electrical utility that supplies power to most of Georgia, sold used electrical transformers containing PCBs to Ward Transformer Company. Ward repaired and rebuilt used transformers for resale. In the process, Ward’s Raleigh, North Carolina, facility became contaminated with PCBs. After the Ward site was added to the National Priorities list, Consolidated Coal Company and another company bore most of the cleanup costs as PRPs under CERCLA, spending approximately $17 million each in cleanup costs.
Any attorney who has ever tried or been involved with a CERCLA case knows that Georgia Power, given these facts, looks like a prime target to sue for contribution.
In their appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, Consolidated Coal argued the District Court improperly considered the low value of the used transformers and Ward’s ability to profit from their resale. This, Consolidated Coal contended, overlooks the possibility that Georgia Power had a “dual intent” to make money from the sales of transformers and thus had an intent to dispose of the hazardous materials as an arranger. Thus, according to Consolidated Coal, Georgia Power’s “secondary motive” for the transformer sales -- to dispose of PCBs –- was sufficient to create arranger liability under CERCLA.
The Court concluded that there was no direct or substantial evidence that Georgia Power intended, “even in part,” to arrange for disposal. Furthermore, the use of the words “scrapping” or “disposal” in Georgia Power’s documents had “limited bearing” on their intent to “dispose” of transformers as the word is construed in CERCLA, let alone the PCBs within those transformers. The Court was also not swayed by the fact that the transformers were sold in lots and that some of the transformers were partially disassembled, or that old oil was required to be removed from the transformer as part of the reconditioning process. According to the Court, all Georgia Power did was to sell its transformers to the highest bidder.
While these cases remain fact sensitive, the trend lines suggest CERCLA plaintiffs alleging “disposal” may be on thin ice.
Posted on April 16, 2015
After Sackett, the question on everyone’s mind was “How far does it go?” The first test of that question was the decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals – not known as a bastion of liberalism – in Belle Company v. Corps of Engineers, holding that a Corps jurisdictional determination is not final agency action subject to judicial review. Late last week, however, in Hawkes Co. v. Corps of Engineers, the 8th Circuit disagreed, creating a circuit split.
As we noted at the time, the 5th Circuit decision in Belle focused on the differences between the Sacketts’ position facing an enforcement order and that of Belle Company facing a Corps JD. As the 5th Circuit emphasized, the JD did not require Belle Company to do anything. Nor did the JD expose Belle Company to penalties. Nor did it prejudice Belle Company’s ability to obtain a permit. Nor did it include a finding of a CWA violation.
The 8th Circuit took a different tack, focusing instead on the one great, glaring similarity between the enforcement order in Sackett and the JD in Hawkes Co. – in both cases, the Corps’ decision, as a practical matter, defined the property owner’s rights and ended the proceeding.
It’s not obvious to me that the Supreme Court will take the case, even with the circuit split. I don’t think that the Court likes these cases. On the other hand, it is obvious that the conservative wing of the court sees Sackett as a very important decision and there could well be four votes to decide the issue at this point.
If the Court does take the case, all bets are off. I think that the 5th Circuit still has the better of the legal argument, and I expect that will be sufficient for all but the most ardent property rights advocates on the Court. Whether there are five ardent property rights advocates on the Court is what remains to be seen.
Posted on March 23, 2015
On January 15, 2015, Oklahoma Western District Judge Timothy DeGiusti dismissed a declaratory judgment action brought by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against Oklahoma Gas and Electric Company (OG&E) under the Clean Air Act. In United States v. Okla. Gas & Elec. Co. , the Court found that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over EPA’s claims.
The litigation involved certain modifications made by OG&E at its Muskogee and Sooner plants. These modifications occurred more than five (5) years prior to EPA’s suit. Before commencing each of the projects, OG&E submitted “Project Notifications” to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that: (1) stated that each of the modifications would not result in a significant emissions increase; and (2) committed to submitting annual reports supporting this conclusion. OG&E did not submit detailed emissions calculations. However, five years of data subsequent to the modifications confirmed that significant emissions increases did not occur.
Although the underlying dispute revolves around whether OG&E was required to obtain a Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permit before commencing each of the modifications, EPA did not allege that the projects were “major modifications” or that the projects resulted in “significant emissions increases” from the Sooner or Muskogee plants. Nor did the government seek penalties for violations of the PSD permit requirements or injunctive relief requiring OG&E to obtain permits, likely seeking to avoid the application of the five year general statute of limitations applicable to government claims for fines, 28 U.S.C. § 2462. Instead, the government only sought a declaration that OG&E did not properly project whether the modifications to the Sooner and Muskogee plants would result in a significant increase in emissions.
Given that the government did not allege a “major modification” or a “significant emissions increase” for any of the projects, the Court found that the government had not presented an actual case or controversy sufficient for the Court's exercise of jurisdiction.
Even if OG & E failed as a matter of law to evaluate whether the modifications would result in a significant increase in post-modification emissions of regulated pollutants at each facility, that failure to project is not, without more, determinative of whether a PSD permit is required. Unmoored from a claim that the modifications at issue are major modifications, Plaintiffs ask this Court to make a declaration as to a collateral legal issue governing aspects of a future potential suit. EPA's attempt at piecemeal litigation, therefore, cannot withstand the Court's jurisdictional limitations.
The Court also rejected EPA’s novel claim for injunctive relief seeking to require OG&E to properly calculate whether the projects were likely to result in a significant emissions increase prior to construction.
The Court is not aware of any decision in which the injunctive relief requested by EPA has been granted, or for that matter, ever requested. As the parties concede, there is no statutory or regulatory requirement that projections be submitted to EPA or any other regulatory authority in the first instance. And, as the Sixth Circuit addressed in DTE Energy, there is no prior approval required by the agency. Thus, if the Court were to grant the injunctive relief requested by EPA it would be directing OG & E to submit projections where no statutory or regulatory authority for such action exists. The availability of relief of the nature requested by EPA is a matter to be addressed by Congress, not this Court.
This is an important decision limiting EPA’s ability to “second-guess” a facility’s pre-construction permitting calculations in the absence of data demonstrating a significant emissions increase.
Posted on March 17, 2015
In its March 9, 2015 decision in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association, the Supreme Court held that the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice-and-comment requirement “does not apply . . . to interpretative rules.” The decision was unanimous, but the concurring opinions of Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas express concern with the consequences of the Court’s opinion. As set out well in the temperate concurrence of Justice Scalia (yes, it really is temperate), in giving the category of interpretive rules Auer deference:
we do more than allow the agency to make binding regulations without notice and comment. Because the agency (not Congress) drafts the substantive rules that are the object of those interpretations, giving them deference allows the agency to control the extent of its notice-and-comment-free domain. To expand this domain, the agency need only write substantive rules more broadly and vaguely, leaving plenty of gaps to be filled in later, using interpretive rules unchecked by notice and comment.
While the three concurring justices are looking down the road for the right case for revisiting what is generally known as Auer deference (i.e., judicial deference to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulations), Seth Jaffe’s next-day blog posting suggests that the road to the right case might be a long one.
I agree that the Court is unlikely to revisit Auer during the current Administration. But what happens if those in the next Administration disagree with choices made by the current Administration? What if they choose to address those disagreements by issuing a tsunami of interpretative rules that reverse both longstanding interpretive rules on which people have relied and/or the newer interpretive rules of the current Administration? What happens, for example, if the next Secretary of the Department of Labor reverses the interpretive rule upheld by Perez? Will those adversely affected by such a new interpretive rule stand by without protest? Will they be satisfied with Justice Sotomayor’s suggestions for recourse (e.g., by trying to persuade courts that the reinterpretations are arbitrary and capricious)?
I think not. I think that just a short jog down the road, we will see some particularly bold (or outrageous) re-interpretative rules flowing from agencies unimpeded by fears of the judicial review process. That will prompt challenges from those supportive of the previous interpretive rules. And that might well prompt the Chief Justice and one or more other justices to join Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas in revisiting Auer deference. I, for one, would welcome that revisit.
Posted on March 10, 2015
The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that, when an agency revises its interpretive rules, it need not go through notice-and-comment rulemaking. Although the decision, in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association, required the court to reverse a long-held line of D.C. Circuit cases, the decision was not difficult; it was, in fact, unanimous. In short, the Administrative Procedures Act:
states that unless “notice or hearing is required by statute,” the Act’s notice-and-comment requirement “does not apply … to interpretative rules.”
It carves out no exception for revisions to interpretive rules. Game over.
The truly interesting part of the case was in the concurring opinions. Both Justices Scalia and Thomas, effectively joined by Justice Alito, argued that Supreme Court decisions giving deference to agencies’ interpretation of their own rules have no constitutional foundation and should be overruled.
This is not the first time that they have made these arguments. As I noted previously, in Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Chief Justice Roberts also suggested that it might be time to revisit what is generally known as Auer deference. It is notable in Perez that the Chief Justice joined the Court’s opinion. Absent a change in the make-up of the Court, I don’t see it revisiting Auer any time soon.
Otherwise, the most notable part of the case is a statement from Justice Thomas that, to me, already wins the metaphor of the year prize. Justice Thomas’s argument against Auer deference, while couched in constitutional terms, is really a screed (parts of which I sympathize with) against the growth of rulemaking and the modern administrative state. He laments the use of interpretive rules and the decline of formal notice-and-comment rulemaking, and the protections that are required:
Today, however, formal rulemaking is the Yeti of administrative law. There are isolated sightings of it in the ratemaking context, but elsewhere it proves elusive.
True dat. It just doesn't justify abandoning Auer deference in my book.