All posts tagged 'preemption'

Whatever Happened to State Law Carbon Dioxide Liability Claims? Still No Music After Bell

October 27, 2013 07:30
by J. Wylie Donald
“Therefore, the Court declines to assert supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims which are dismissed without prejudice to their presentation in a state court action.”  So ends the last analytical paragraph in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., 663 F. Supp. 2d 863 (N.D. Cal. 2009).  Thus, while plaintiffs’ federal common law carbon-dioxide-liability claims were extinguished on standing and political question grounds, state law claims could go forward should the plaintiffs choose to re-file.  Then, the Supreme Court decided American Electric Power Co., Inc. v. Connecticut, 564 U.S. __ (2011), and held a set of different plaintiffs’ federal common law claims were displaced by the Clean Air Act.  The Court specifically declined to rule on state law claims of the type at issue in Kivalina:  “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.” Last fall we relied on Bell v. Cheswick Generating Station, 903 F. Supp. 2d 314 (W.D. Pa. 2012), out of the Western District of Pennsylvania as support for the proposition that state law nuisance claims were futile – preemption by the Clean Air Act doomed such claims.  The Third Circuit's recent review, while reversing the trial court, has not upended our conclusion. In Bell, 1500 neighbors of the 570 megawatt coal-fired Cheswick Generating Station operated by GenOn Power Midwest, L.P. became annoyed by ash and other contaminants allegedly settling on their property.  And so they brought a class action under Pennsylvania state tort law.  GenOn defended based on the comprehensive regulation of the Clean Air Act, which, it was asserted, preempted state law tort claims; the trial court agreed. On appeal, however, broad preemption by the Clean Air Act was not accepted.  The Court of Appeals acknowledged the comprehensive program established by the Act.  But it also recognized that Congress had specifically provided for a citizens suit provision, 42 U.S.C. § 7604, and that the Act contained two "savings" clauses.  The first, the "citizen suit savings clause," provided:   "Nothing in this section shall restrict any right which any person (or class of persons) may have under any statute or common law to seek enforcement of any emission standard or limitation or to seek any other relief (including relief against the Administrator or a State agency)."  42 U.S.C. § 7604(e).  The second, the "states' rights savings clause," stated:  "Except as otherwise provided ... nothing in this chapter shall preclude or deny the right of any State or political subdivision thereof to adopt or enforce (1) any standard or limitation respecting emissions of air pollutants or (2) any requirement respecting control or abatement of air pollution ...."  42 U.S.C. § 7416.  Read together, a more restrictive state law could be enforced in a citizen suit. This idea was consistent with the Cheswick Generating Station's permit:   "Nothing in this permit shall be construed as impairing any right or remedy now existing or hereafter created in equity, common law or statutory law with respect to air pollution, nor shall any court be deprived of such jurisdiction for the reason that such air pollution constitutes a violation of this permit."   Could a citizen suit successfully address the ill-placed ash and contaminants?  The trial court said "no":  “Based on the extensive and comprehensive regulations promulgated by the administrative bodies which govern air emissions from electrical generation facilities, the Court finds and rules that to permit the common law claims would be inconsistent with the dictates of the Clean Air Act.”  But the Third Circuit said "yes."  Its primary authority was the Supreme Court's 1987 decision in International Paper Co. v. Ouellette, 479 U.S. 481 (1987), a Clean Water Act case where Vermont plaintiffs asserted a (Vermont) common law nuisance suit in Vermont state court, where the pollution originated from a  New York facility.  To quote:  The Ouellette Court found that the Clean Water Act's savings clauses clearly preserved some state law tort actions, but that the text of the clauses did not provide a definitive answer to the question of whether suits based on the law of the affected state were preempted. 479 U.S. at 492, 497. However, it found definitively that "nothing in the [Clean Water Act] bars aggrieved individuals from bringing a nuisance claim pursuant to the laws of the source State." Id. at 497 (emphasis in original). The Court reasoned that, "[b]y its terms the Clean Water Act allows States . . . to impose higher standards on their own point sources," and "this authority may include the right to impose higher common-law as well as higher statutory restrictions." Id. (internal citation omitted). The Court acknowledged that a source state's "nuisance law may impose separate standards and thus create some tension with the permit system," but explained that this "would not frustrate the goals of the Clean Water Act," because "a source only is required to look to a single additional authority, whose rules should be relatively predictable." Id. at 498-99. Thus, a suit by Vermont citizens would not be preempted if brought under the law of New York, the source state. But, GenOn argued, the Clean Water Act and its savings clauses are distinguishable from the Clean Air Act and its savings clauses.  Not so said the court; "a textual comparison of the two savings clauses at issue demonstrates there is no meaningful difference between them."  Accordingly, the Bell plaintiffs, who brought suit as “Pennsylvania residents under Pennsylvania law against a source of pollution located in Pennsylvania,” were not preempted. Now let’s return again to Kivalina.  The concurring opinion laid out the rule:   “Kivalina may pursue whatever remedies it may have under state law to the extent their claims are not preempted.”  Bell limits those claims.  Where Alaska natives sue in California a collection of greenhouse gas emitters from around the country, they would appear not to satisfy the requirement of emission-source-state-law-applies unless they are arguing that the nuisance rules of a score of jurisdictions must be considered.  In which case, their case falls apart for improper joinder.  And if they attempt to sue in multiple jurisdictions, they only amplify a fundamental flaw in their approach.  Whomever they sue has only contributed a tiny fraction of global greenhouse gases in either volume or over time and thus could not be the proximate cause of the Kivalina plaintiffs’ loss.  See Comer v Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 839 F. Supp. 2d 84 (S.D. Miss. 2012) ("[t]he assertion that the defendants’ emissions combined over a period of decades or centuries with other natural and man-made gases to cause or strengthen a hurricane and damage personal property is precisely the type of remote, improbable, and extraordinary occurrence that is excluded from liability.")  Carbon dioxide liability plaintiffs may attempt to rely on the Third Circuit's decision in Bell to attempt to revive their litigation fortunes.  From our perspective, such attempts still won't ring the bell. 

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Supreme Court

Native Village of Kivalina Files Its Petition for Certiorari - A Five-Year Climate Change Litigation Marathon That Has Yet to Start

March 15, 2013 05:54
by J. Wylie Donald
One day short of five years since the case was originally filed, on February 25, 2013 the plaintiffs in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. attempt once more to get out of the starting blocks, this time with a petition for certiorari  to the United States Supreme Court.  This follows dismissal by the Northern District of California in 2009, affirmance of the dismissal by the Ninth Circuit last September, and denial of a petition for rehearing en banc in November.   To be trite, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  The response, if any, is due on April 3.  We can expect a decision on the petition a few weeks after that.  The substance of the petition was easily predicted.  The tension between Middlesex County Sewerage Authority v. National Sea Clammers Ass’n, 453 U.S. 1 (1981), and Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker, 554 U.S. 471 (2008), and mentioned by the concurrence (Judge Pro, sitting by designation on the Ninth Circuit) is the center of the argument.  Indeed it is the only issue behind the question presented:  “Whether the Clean Air Act, which provides no damages remedy to persons harmed by greenhouse gas emissions, displaces federal common-law claims for damages.” According to the petitioners, the starting point for the analysis is the Court’s 1981 decision in Milwaukee v. Illinois, 451 U.S. 304 (1981) (“Milwaukee II”), where Illinois sought to enjoin Milwaukee’s federally permitted Clean Water Act discharges using the federal common law of nuisance.  Petition at 7.   In rejecting Illinois’s claim, the Court “focused carefully on whether the statutory scheme ‘spoke directly’ to the plaintiff’s ‘problem,’ and whether the statute gave the plaintiff a means ‘to protect its interests.’”  Id. at 8.  The same year, however, the Court also, according to petitioners, issued Middlesex, a decision sharply diverging from Milwaukee II. In Middlesex, fishermen aggrieved by ocean dumping were found to have no federal common law remedy because “’the federal common law of nuisance in the area of water pollution is entirely pre-empted by the more comprehensive scope’ of the [Clean Water Act].” Id. at 10. These two threads came together 27 years later in Exxon Shipping, where the Court “departed from any broad reading of Middlesex and returned to the more pragmatic and careful analysis of Milwaukee II.”  Id. Or maybe not.  Kivalina in candor also acknowledged: To be sure, it is possible to read Middlesex narrowly so as to reconcile the decision with Exxon Shipping.  Given Exxon Shipping’s statement that Middlesex is limited to situations where “plaintiffs’ common law nuisance claims amounted to arguments for effluent-discharge standards different from those provided by the CWA,” then it appears that a federal common law damages claim is displaced only where it is so inextricably intertwined with claims for injunctive relief that it amounts to second-guessing of the prospective statutory standards.  Id. at 11-12. Petitioners tied up their arguments with reference to American Electric Power v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011) (“AEP”), the case that established that greenhouse gas claims were displaced by the Clean Air Act.  AEP, it was asserted, “pointedly did not follow Middlesex in concluding that the whole 'federal common law of nuisance is entirely' displaced by a 'comprehensive' regulatory scheme, which would have made for a much shorter, and very different, AEP opinion.” Petition at 12.  Instead, the gravamen of AEP was that the displaced claims were those that would have interfered with EPA’s authority.  Id. at 13. In sum, “Milwaukee II, Middlesex, Exxon Shipping and AEP cannot all be correctly decided, yet all of them are viewed as good law – a conundrum that Judge Pro acknowledged in his opinion concurring in the result and that ultimately led him, and the other members of the panel, to a result in this case that is at odds with the fundamental rationale for displacement and with basic fairness.”  Id. Stated differently, Exxon Shipping permitted common-law damages even though the Clean Water Act displaced claims for injunctive relief.  This was to be contrasted with Middlesex, which “held that  a federal common-law damages claim was displaced by the Clean Water Act.”   Id. at i.  We expect that the Kivalina defendants will have a different point of view. The second part of the petition is the analysis of why the case is so important that the Court should hear it.  Kivalina gave four reasons: 1.  Climate change is an extremely important subject.  In a pointed salvo, petitioners cited to the petition for certiorari in AEP, where some of the same defendants stated “’The questions presented by this case are recurring and of exceptional importance to the Nation.’”2. Displacement presents a fundamental question of boundaries between the legislative and judicial branches.3. GHG emissions claims are “inherently important because of the extraordinary nature of global warming.”  4. Kivalina’s very existence is at stake. Notwithstanding all that, the odds of the petition being granted are long.  The Court only accepts between 100-150 of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review each year.  That is less than a 2% chance, all things being equal.   Greenhouse gas emissions were on the Court’s docket in 2007 (Massachusetts v. EPA) and again in 2011 (AEP v. Connecticut).  While we agree that climate change cases are important; we are skeptical that this narrow issue (displacement of damages, when the Court has already ruled on displacement of injunctive relief) justifies a place at the finish line, marathon or no.

Climate Change Litigation | Greenhouse Gases | Sustainability

American Electric Power v. Connecticut: 8-0 the Supreme Court Rules Federal Common Law is Displaced

June 20, 2011 20:25
by J. Wylie Donald
The moment we have been waiting for since 2004 (when the first climate change liability case was filed) finally arrived. The Supreme Court today rendered its opinion in American Electric Power Co., Inc.. v. Connecticut.  As many predicted following oral argument, the use of the federal common law of nuisance to limit carbon dioxide emissions simply is not a viable theory because it has been displaced by the Clean Air Act and the EPA's steps to implement the Act. For those who have not yet read the opinion, it is straightforward. Following the Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, the EPA undertook to begin the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. AEP at 2.  Within the framework of the Clean Air Act it issued its "Endangerment Ruling" (76 Fed. Reg. 66496), and then adopted final rules regulating emissions from light-duty trucks, initiated a joint rulemaking covering medium and heavy-duty vehicles, began phasing in requirements for best available control technology for major greenhouse gas emitters, and commenced a rulemaking on emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants. Id.at 2-3.  That rule is due to be final in May 2012.  Id.at 3. With those steps, and the comprehensive activities authorized under the Clean Air Act (id. at 10-11), the Court applied the simple test:  "whether congressional legislation excludes the declaration of federal common law is simply whether the statute 'speak[s] directly to [the] question' at issue." Id.at 10. The Court held:  "the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions it authorizes displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants." Id. The Court responded to arguments that the EPA was only beginning to regulate but had not yet finished the process by emphasizing that it was the "delegation [that] displaces federal common law.". Id.at 12 (emphasis added). That is, even if the EPA chose not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, "the federal courts would have no warrant to employ the federal common law of nuisance to upset the agency's expert determination." Id. Some may recall that the political question doctrine was front and center in the decisions below. See id. at 5-6.  Here, however, the Court mentions it only indirectly.  In describing the "prescribed order of decisionmaking" (i.e., expert agencies and then federal judges), "the expert agency is surely better equipped to do the job than individual district judges issuing ad hoc, case-by-case injunctions." Id.at 14. Notwithstanding the apparently simple rule and its application, we do not expect AEP to end climate change liability litigation.  State nuisance law (which plaintiffs pleaded) remains. Although the Court offered no opinion on such a theory's efficacy, it did give a hint of where it might land:  "the Clean Water Act does not preclude aggrieved individuals from bringing a 'nuisance claim pursuant to the law of the source state.'" Id. at 15-16 (citing International Paper Co. v. Ouellette, 479 U. S. 481 (1987)). Accordingly, the case was remanded to the Second Circuit. Further, the significance of Justice Sotomayor's recusal (which we called in an earlier post) manifested itself. The Court split 4-4 on the issue of standing (which compelled it to hear the case on the merits).  Id. at 6.  This jurisdictional dispute could surface in the future when Justice Sotomayor is included in the full panel. She presumably would be in favor of broader standing, which is likely to support more claims of aggrieved climate change plaintiffs. Last, the Court offered some helpful commentary for future carbon-dioxide liability insurance coverage cases.  We have written often on how carbon dioxide should not fall within the meaning of pollution in a comprehensive general liability policy's pollution exclusion.  The Court appears to agree.  In discussing the scope of legislative activity needed to preempt federal common law, the Court stated:  "Congress could hardly preemptively prohibit every discharge of carbon dioxide unless covered by a permit. After all, we each emit carbon dioxide merely by breathing." Immediate effects of the decision will be filings by the defendants in the Kivalina v. ExxonMobil case before the Ninth Circuit for dismissal.  Undoubtedly the justices deciding Steadfast Insurance Co. v. AES Corp. will read the decision; how it will affect them is hard to say.  It should have no effect on the multiple climate change lawsuits orchestrated by Our Children's Trust.  And over the long term, it likely will have the effect of forcing plaintiffs' to come up with new climate change liability theories.  That will not be necessary, of course, if (as has been suggested) Congress acts to remove carbon dioxide from EPA's jurisdiction.  In that case, we just might find AEP revived.

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Legislation | Supreme Court

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