All posts tagged 'Matt Pawa'

No En Banc Appeal in Kivalina; So What's Next for Climate Change LItigation?

December 8, 2012 19:18
by J. Wylie Donald
When we discuss climate change litigation with colleagues or acquaintances unfamiliar with it, they are always a little incredulous.  “The plaintiffs allege what?  How could you prove that?  There's no way they can win.”  Courts, however, cannot rule from their impressions; instead, they must parse arguments and facts and explicate the legal reasoning that supports shutting climate change cases out of the courtroom.  We have addressed in this blog many of those decisions as the climate change cases have wound their way up the appellate ladder.  That statement-of-reasons rule, however, does not apply when a court is being asked to grant rehearing en banc.  Then a judge can just say, “I’m not interested.”  And the case is done. That happened at the end of November in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. when the Ninth Circuit issued its denial (see attached) of plaintiffs' petition for rehearing:  “The full court has been advised of the petition for rehearing en banc, and no judge of the court has requested a vote on the petition for rehearing en banc.  Appellants’ petition for rehearing en banc is DENIED.”  Unless the plaintiffs file a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court, and the Court accepts it (which we think unlikely with no circuit court split and the dismissal being a fairly simple extension of the Court's decision in American Electric Power), Kivalina is done.  That means that there is no federal common law of nuisance relevant to greenhouse gas emissions whether a plaintiff seeks injunctive relief or damages.  The federal Clean Air Act displaces the claim in both instances.  Two slim reeds remain for plaintiffs in the first wave of climate change litigation.  First, they need to prevail on an appeal before the Fifth Circuit in Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., which will require overcoming over half a dozen independent bases for dismissal found by the trial court.  Or second, they must succeed on a state-law-based theory of nuisance.  As we have noted recently, the Clean Air Act is likely to be found to preempt such claims.  In light of the string of defeats in American Electric Power, Comer and Kivalina for plaintiffs, we went looking to see where the climate change plaintiffs' lawyers were going next.  The websites of the lead Comer and Kivalina lawyers, Gerald Maples and Matt Pawa, were not helpful.  However, journalist Andrew Longstreth didn’t rest on the websites; he reached out directly to Messrs. Pawa and Maples. Here is the future he found:  "Pawa said that he and his co-counsel in the Kivalina case are discussing their options, which include asking the Supreme Court to hear an appeal or filing a new case in state court that asserts state common law claims. Pawa likened the current state of climate change litigation to the early stages of suits against cigarette makers and companies with asbestos liability. Before plaintiffs' lawyers in those cases were able to win judgments and settlements, they were stymied by defense arguments. "We haven't exhausted our theories or our efforts," he said. As stated above, the Supreme Court and state law nuisance paths do not seem likely to succeed.  Mr. Maples suggested a different path: "Future success in climate change litigation, he said, may depend on whether state attorneys general get involved, as they did in the tobacco litigation of the 1990s. With home insurance premiums rising as a result of climate change, Maples said, the litigation could become attractive to state AGs, who like consumer protection cases.  'If you can't afford insurance, that's almost like not affording food,'" So, is climate change litigation going to take a new turn and become an issue about consumer protection and insurance rates?  After reviewiing the Fourth Amended Complaint in Comer, we suggested in 2011 that this theory was something that bore watching.  Here is the theory in action as alleged in Comer:  “[Defendants' greenhouse gas emissions] put Plaintiffs' property at greater risk of flood and storm damage, and dramatically increase Plaintiffs' insurance costs." (Fourth Amended Complaint ¶ 37.)   Thus, with the demise of federal common law claims, consumer protection law claims may be the next wave.  20121127 Order (denying rehearing en banc), Kivalina v. ExxonMobil.pdf (34.55 kb)

Carbon Emissions | Climate Change Litigation | Insurance

Oral Argument in Kivalina: Winds of Change or Climate Change Liability Suits Becalmed?

December 4, 2011 20:16
by J. Wylie Donald
On November 8-9, 2011 an Arctic gale bore down on the peninsulas, islands, salt marshes and beaches of the Alaska littoral.  Named the Bering Sea Superstorm it pounded Alaska with 8-10 foot storm surges, wind gusts up to 75 mph and blizzard conditions.  One small community was particularly fearful.  Many readers already know of whom we are speaking:  Kivalina.  The National Weather Service wrote:  "WIDESPREAD MAJOR COASTAL FLOODING AND SEVERE BEACH EROSION IS EXPECTED IN THE FOLLOWING AREAS: ... 4. THE CHUKCHI SEA COAST FROM CAPE KRUSENSTERN TO POINT HOPE. THIS INCLUDES THE VILLAGES OF NOME AND KIVALINA WHERE MAJOR DAMAGE FROM COASTAL FLOODING AND STRONG WINDS IS EXPECTED.  Fortunately, the seawall at Kivalina held. While unusual, this was one storm of thousands that have visited high winds and storm surge upon Alaska's shoreline over the millennia.  Last Monday a storm of a different sort broke. Although not even rated on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the verbal gusts exhaled before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Native Village of Kivalina v ExxonMobil Corp. may have substantially more effect than any Arctic storm.  Or they may not. (Click here for the video or audio link or oral argument.) Kudos must be extended to Matt Pawa (Appellant Kivalina) and Daniel Collins (Defendants/Appellees) for masterful argument.  Both were completely on top of their game, whether it was jousting with the Court or each other over the Restatement (Second) (and sometimes Third), laying out their key arguments or responding to pointed questions from Judges Thomas, Clifton or Pro (on temporary assignment from the District of Nevada). (For those to whom Kivalina is not familiar, in a nutshell, a native Alaskan village on the shores of the Chukchi Sea has brought suit against electric utilities, oil companies and one coal company.  The complaint asserts the defendants are responsible for excess emissions of greenhouse gases, which have led to global warming, which has resulted in delayed formation of arctic sea ice and early melting as well, which has accelerated the erosion caused by winter storms.  The plaintiffs seek damages for the cost of relocating their village.  The suit was dismissed on political question grounds by the District Court for the Northern  District of California; it is now on appeal to the Ninth Circuit.) Mr. Pawa opened his argument with the proposition that it is black letter law that no balancing of interests is needed where an intentionally caused nuisance is causing a claimant serious harm.  He cited numerous Restatement sections in support.  The Court seemed skeptical.  Judge Clifton asserted in his question that balancing was called for in the Restatement.  Judge Pro wanted to know what instructions Mr. Pawa would give to the jury.  Judge Clifton queried:  "Why is it so difficult to find a case that remotely resembles this one?"  Mr. Pawa pointed to People v. Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co., 66 Cal. 138, 4 P. 1152 (1884), which established, he said, that valid nuisance claims lie against all polluters of a common resource.  (We, of course, take strong exception to any referral to carbon dioxide as pollution in light of its ubiquity, natural presence, and lack of toxicity in the atmosphere.  The parallels to water vapor - the most prevalent greenhouse gas and in no one's estimation a pollutant - are striking.) Although  there was not enough time in argument to fully develop Gold Run Ditch, it is worth a moment to consider.  There the California Supreme Court was asked to enjoin hydraulic mining which was despoiling California's rivers and threatening agricultural interests.  In holding that an injunction against the hydraulic mining operator should issue, the Court wrote: But a legitimate private business, founded upon a local custom, may grow into a force to threaten the safety of the people, and destruction to public and private rights; and when it develops into that condition, the custom upon which it is founded becomes unreasonable, because dangerous to public and private rights, and cannot be invoked to justify the continuance of the business in an unlawful manner. Every business has its laws, and these require of those who are engaged in it to so conduct it as that it shall not violate the rights that belong to others. Accompanying the ownership of every species of property is a corresponding duty to so use it as that it shall not abuse the rights of other recognized owners ... Upon that underlying principle, neither State nor Federal legislatures could, by silent acquiescence, or by attempted legislation ... divest the people of the State of their rights in the navigable waters of the State for the use of a private business, however extensive or long continued .... As we have already said, the rights of the people in the navigable rivers of the State are paramount and controlling.  66 Cal. at 152. The effect of Gold Run Ditch and a parallel decision in federal court, Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Mining Co., 18 F. 753 (1884), effectively ended hydraulic mining in California.  Whether a similar ruling could be used against entities emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere remains to be seen. Another interesting argument broached by Mr. Pawa concerned what he referred to as trivial emitters.  Judge Thomas played into his hand with a question about whether his driving to work made him a defendant.   According to Mr. Pawa Section 36 of the Restatement  (Third) takes care of that issue and negates liability to trivial emitters.  That section provides:  "When an actor’s negligent conduct constitutes only a trivial contribution to a causal set that is a factual cause of physical harm under § 27, the harm is not within the scope of the actor’s liability."  Mr. Pawa would permit the defendants to demonstrate that they constitute trivial contributors to the global warming problem. In closing, Mr. Pawa cited the substantial precedent in his clients' favor.  The Second Circuit reversed the trial court and found standing for the plaintiffs in Connecticut v. AEP, 582 F.3d 309 (2d Cir. 2009), which was not reversed by the Supreme Court.  Likewise the appellate panel in Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, 585 F.3d 855 (5th Cir. 2009), also reversed the trial court and found standing for the climate change liability plaintiffs.  (Mr. Pawa acknowledged that the decision had been vacated and cited the decision for the panel's thinking, not as precedent.)  Last, in Massachusetts v. EPA, 127 S.Ct. 1438 (2007), the Supreme Court also found standing for an entity alleging damage from greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Collins responded to Mr. Pawa's arguments and knocked down plaintiffs' claim that black letter law established that balancing was not required.  Mr. Collins pointed to comment e of section 821B of the Restatement (Second) which requires an assessment of reasonableness whether the allegation is an intentional, reckless or negligent nuisance.  Further, the balancing required by plaintiffs' claims is "utterly without precedent."  "But balancing is what courts do all the time," interjected Judge Pro.  "Nothing on this scale has ever been remitted to a court," rejoined Mr. Collins.  This is not a case about a discreet pollution site; it is a case of global dimensions and there is no traceability of the emitted carbon dioxide (as the plaintiffs conceded). The Court was not so easily put off and brought up AEP, where the Second Circuit had permitted plaintiffs to proceed with their greenhouse gas liability claim, and the Supreme Court had not reversed.  Mr. Collins had seen that softball coming:  AEP is different because some of the plaintiffs were sovereigns, which was not the case here. Mr. Collins closed with strong points on his clients' primary position:  displacement of the federal common law applies to both injunctive and damages remedies.  This was established in Middlesex County Sewerage Auth. v. Sea Clammers, 453 U.S. 1, 13 (1981).  The reason is simple.  When Congress crafted the regulatory framework establishing the Clean Air Act, which displaced injunctive remedies, see American Electric Power v. Connecticut, Congress did not provide for any compensatory relief to an aggrieved private party.  Accordingly, a damages remedy is also displaced and the plaintiffs' claim is barred.  As the Ninth Circuit had itself held in In re Exxon Valdez, 270 F.3d. 1215 (9th Cir. 2001):  "a nuisance theory would enable a federal district judge to substitute a different balancing of interests from the one made by the agency to which Congress assigned the job".  In our view the Court's decision is not likely to be the final curtain.  If it goes in favor of the plaintiffs, the defendants will certainly appeal.  And if the defendants prevail, the state law claims (dismissed by the federal district court without prejudice) are likely to be refilled, particularly with the invitation set forth in by the Supreme Court in AEP:  "None of the parties have briefed preemption or otherwise addressed the availability of a claim under state nuisance law. We therefore leave the matter open for consideration on remand."

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Supreme Court

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