Supreme Court Gets Back to Basics in Declining to Hear Three Environmental Cases

Posted on March 2, 2010 by Eva Fromm O''Brien

The United States Supreme Court recently declined to hear three relatively high-profile environmental cases: Croplife America v. Baykeeper (a permitting clash between FIFRA and CWA); Texas Water Development Board v. Department of Interior (weighing the designation of a nature refuge under NEPA versus economic development); and Rose Acre Farms Inc. v. United States (regulatory taking claim as a result of agency action). After a 2008-2009 term where the Court seemed to take aim at the environmentalist cause, the Court may have put some wind back in the environmentalist’s sails by declining to consider these three separate industry challenges to federal environmental regulations.

 

 

EPA Rulemaking for CWA & FIFRA Permitting

 

 

In Croplife America v. Baykeeper, the Court decided not to review the Sixth Circuit’s year-old ruling in National Cotton Council v. EPA requiring farmers to secure Clean Water Act permits for the use of pesticides already permitted under FIFRA.  EPA had claimed that FIFRA approval incorporated compliance with the Clean Water Act, however, the Sixth Circuit ruled that the government was obligated to ensure that farmers using pesticides were subject to both regulations. The decision had been stayed until April 2011 while EPA reviews and revises its NPDES permitting process to comply with the ruling.

 

 

Two different groups—one representing environmental interest groups and the other representing industry interest groups—opposed the EPA’s new permitting rule as exceeding the EPA’s interpretive authority, and argued that it would create redundant bureaucracy and hamper agricultural production by forcing farmers to decide between not applying pesticides and risking legal and enforcement actions for discharging without a permit.

 

Environmental Conservation versus Future Development

 

Another case denied review was Texas Water Development Board v. DOI, which weighed prospective future development against environmental conservation.  The Supreme Court’s decision will disrupt any future plans by Dallas-area officials to build the proposed Lake Fastrill reservoir along the Neches River.

 

 

In Texas Water Development Board, the Fifth Circuit Court had unanimously upheld a lower court’s decision that the Fish and Wildlife Service did not violate the NEPA by designating 25,000 acres of east Texas wetlands as the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge. In opposing the designation, local governments asserted they would likely need to build the reservoir by 2050 in order to accommodate increased water demand. However, the Fifth Circuit found that this project may never take place or may occur at a different site. Importantly, the “effects of establishing the refuge, and thus precluding the reservoir, are highly speculative and cannot be shown to be the proximate cause of future water shortages in Dallas.” 

 

 

Regulatory Taking Claims for Enforcement of Regulations

 

 

Finally, the Court declined to review Rose Acre Farms Inc. v. United States, a suit brought by an egg farm against the federal government for damages after a crack-down on potential salmonella contamination. Following an outbreak that was traced back to the farm, the USDA destroyed some of the farm’s eggs and required the company to sell others on the less-lucrative market for liquid, pasteurized eggs.

 

 

Rose Acre sued to recoup lost revenue, arguing that the government response constituted a “regulatory taking” under the Fifth Amendment. The Court of Federal Claims awarded Rose Acre $5.4 million in damages, but that award was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  In its petition for review, Rose Acre Farms argued that the government responded to contamination fears in a way that focused the economic impact “narrowly and devastatingly, upon egg producers generally and Rose Acre specifically.”

 

 

The Supreme Court’s decision to pass on the case leaves the Federal Circuit’s decision as the precedent for future takings cases involving federal agencies. As such, the government may have less to fear from regulatory takings claims when enforcing its public health and environmental regulations.

 

 

Declining to hear these cases, while generally viewed as favorable to environmentalists, may be reconciled with the Court’s overall trends in environmental cases over the past several terms. None of these declined cases originated in the Ninth Circuit, a jurisdiction that seems to garner heightened scrutiny from the Supreme Court, as the Court has repeatedly reined the Ninth Circuit’s high-profile, often pro-environment decisions.  The Court has shown that it will look to the plain language of an underlying statute and its overall structure in trying to interpret Congress’ intent. More importantly, when there is room for interpretation, the Court has emphasized giving deference to agency expertise and decision-making. Thus, the question is not whether the Court may be pro- or anti-environment in a given term—it is simply whether it is abiding by its core principles and themes.

Zubulake Revisited: Judge Scheindlin on Discovery Sanctions

Posted on January 20, 2010 by John Barkett

Every environmental litigator understands the duty to preserve documents. Before a complaint is filed, a plaintiff must preserve documents relevant to the claims about to be advanced. If a defendant reasonably anticipates litigation, the defendant must undertake reasonable efforts to preserve documents that are relevant to the impending lawsuit. Once a complaint is served, a defendant must preserve documents relevant to the claims alleged.

 

In the electronic world, especially on a prelitigation basis, it is doubly important to identify custodians with relevant documents (“key players”) since with a keystroke, they have the ability to delete responsive electronically stored information. Aluminum Corp. v. Alcoa, Inc., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66642 (M.D. La. July 19, 2006) illustrates the risk. Alcoa sent a cost-recovery demand to Consolidated Aluminum in 2002 and promptly put a litigation hold on the electronic documents of four Alcoa employees involved with a remedial investigation and cleanup. In 2003, Consolidated filed a declaratory judgment action seeking to be absolved of liability. In 2005, Consolidated propounded discovery that prompted Alcoa to expand its key player list by eleven more names. It was not until this expansion that Alcoa suspended its janitorial email deletion policy and backup tape maintenance policy which at Alcoa meant that email older than about seven months was no longer available unless it had been archived by the individual user. The magistrate judge imposed a monetary sanction on Alcoa—in effect determining that Alcoa should have identified these additional individuals as key players in 2002. 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66642, *36.

 

If a duty to preserve is violated, and documents are lost as a result, sanctions may result. What sanction will depend upon the level of culpability of the “spoliating” party—negligence, gross negligence, or bad faith--and the amount of prejudice to the “innocent” party by the loss of information relevant to the innocent party’s claim or defense. But what is the difference between “negligence” and “gross negligence”? Who has the burden of proof in establishing the culpability of the conduct or the existence of prejudice? May a court presume prejudice depending upon the level of culpability? If so, is such a presumption rebuttable?

 

Much like she did in the five Zubulake v. UBS Warburg decisions, Judge Shira Scheindlin has written another blockbuster decision answering all of these questions. The Pension Committee of the University of Montreal Pension Plan et al. v. Banc of America Securities, LLC et al., Civ. 9016 (January 15, 2010). In her amended opinion and order, (the original opinion was issued January 11, 2010 and appears at 2010 WL 93124), Judge Scheindlin defined gross negligence by reference to misfeasance following the attachment of a duty to preserve. She held that a finding of gross negligence will accompany the failure to

 

  • issue “a written litigation hold,”
  • “identify key players” and to “ensure that their electronic and paper records are preserved,”
  • “cease the deletion of email” or “preserve the records of former employees that are in a party's possession, custody, or control,” and
  • preserve backup tapes “when they are the sole source of relevant information or when they relate to key players, if the relevant information maintained by those key players is not obtainable from readily accessible sources.”

In contrast, the failure to obtain records from all employees, as opposed to key players, or to take all appropriate measures to preserve electronically stored information in most cases “likely” will fall into the “negligence” category, unless the facts, on a case-by-case basis, demonstrate otherwise, she held.

 

The burden of proof, the court said, is on the innocent party to show that the spoliating party had (1) control over the evidence and an obligation to preserve it at the time of its loss and (2) acted with a culpable state of mind, and that (3) the missing evidence is relevant to the innocent party’s claim or defense. Relevance is presumed when bad faith exists. Some courts presume relevance when “gross negligence” has been found, but Judge Scheindlin held that this presumption is “not required.” If only negligence has been found, the innocent party must prove relevance and prejudice. Irrespective of the level of culpability, “any presumption is rebuttable.”

 

The slip opinion is 85 pages in length and rather than summarizing it further here, I urge readers to review it. In the end, Judge Scheindlin decided that relevant information was lost and the innocent party (here a defendant) was prejudiced. She decided to give an adverse inference instruction that itself represents two illuminating single-spaced pages of the opinion, along with monetary sanctions (including attorneys’ fees for deposing certain declarants and bringing the sanctions motion).

 

Pension Committee begins with the byline, “Zubulake Revisited: Six Years Later.” This time, there will be no debate over how to pronounce Pension Committee. And, in the years to come, Pension Committee is sure to be cited just as often as Zubulake has been.