Supreme Court decisions will restrict certain lawsuits

Recently, the US Supreme Court issued two important rulings that will restrict the right of plaintiffs to bring lawsuits. In Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, the Court limited the power of private parties to sue states. In KFC v. Meghrigs, the Court restricted the right of private parties to bring suit to recoup their clean-up costs under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

The Seminole Tribe case, though presenting a narrow factual issue, will have broad ramifications. With the justices voting five to four, the Court ruled that an Indian tribe may not sue the state of Florida for its alleged failure to comply with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

The IGRA purports to allow Indian tribes to sue a state in federal court for failure to negotiate compacts addressing gambling activities on Indian land. The Court found this provision of the IGRA invalid, because the Indian Commerce Clause of the US Constitution, under which the IGRA was enacted, does not grant Congress the power to abrogate the states' sovereign immunity granted by the eleventh amendment.

More broadly and more importantly, the decision overrules an earlier Supreme Court decision, Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co., 491 US 1 (1989), which held that Congress has the power under the Interstate Commerce Clause to subject states to suits by private parties.

In Union Gas the Court reasoned that Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce necessarily includes an ability to abrogate state immunity. In Seminole Tribe, the Court rejected that reasoning as deviating "sharply from our established federalism jurisprudence."

The impact of the Seminole Tribe decision is that states no longer can be sued in federal court for enforcement of a wide variety of federal laws. The dissenting opinion by Justice Souter points out that this will prevent a broad range of actions against the states, including private suits to enforce federal food and drug law, copyright, patent, bankruptcy, and environmental laws. (Union Gas specifically dealt with enforcement of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act [CERCLA]). Following Seminole Tribe, a federal court may not order a state to pay clean-up costs pursuant to CERCLA at the request of a private party.

In the KFC case KFC had cleaned up a petroleum-contaminated site under a county order in 1988 and three years later brought a citizen's suit against a former owner of the site - Meghrigs - to recoup its clean-up costs. Section 7002 of RCRA provides that suit may be brought under RCRA against other responsible parties or former property owners. In so doing, the plaintiff must show that they have contributed to the "handling, storage, treatment, transportation, or disposal of any solid or hazardous waste which may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and the environment."

KFC's complaint was dismissed by the district court, but the decision was reversed by the US Court of Appeals, which ruled that KFC and other private parties in similar circumstances should have been permitted to recoup their clean-up costs under Section 7002 of RCRA. The lower appellate court said that RCRA provides authority to recover such costs and that the contamination need not present an "imminent and substantial endangerment" at the time of cleanup.

The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court, ruling that RCRA does not provide for cost recovery and that wastes must pose an imminent and substantial endangerment at the time a citizen's suit is brought. According to the Court, although the RCRA statute provides for mandatory and prohibitory injunctions, it does not contemplate the award of past damages. The Court said, "An endangerment can only be imminent if it threatens to occur immediately . . . and the reference to waste 'which may present' imminent harm quite clearly excludes wastes that no longer present such a danger."

After the lower appellate court decision, dozens of new suits were filed seeking reimbursements for clean-up costs. The Supreme Court decision alleviates such fears. Yet some believe that the high Court's decision may deprive the Environmental Protection Agency of an important tool to spur cleanup of hazardous sites.


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