Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc.

PETITIONER: Friends of the Earth, Inc.
RESPONDENT: Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc.
LOCATION: FBI Field Office

DOCKET NO.: 98-822
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 528 US 167 (2000)
ARGUED: Oct 12, 1999
DECIDED: Jan 12, 2000

ADVOCATES:
Bruce J. Terris - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Donald A. Cockrill - Argued the cause for the respondent
Jeffrey P. Minear - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court, supporting the petitioners

Facts of the case

After Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc. bought a wastewater treatment plant, it was granted a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The permit authorized Laidlaw to discharge treated water and limited pollutants. Laidlaw's discharge of mercury into the North Tyger River repeatedly exceeded the limits set by the permit. Ultimately, Friends of the Earth and others (FOE) filed a citizen suit under the Clean Water Act against Laidlaw, alleging noncompliance with the NPDES permit, seeking injunctive relief and an award of civil penalties. Laidlaw moved for summary judgement on the ground that FOE lacked standing to bring the lawsuit. The District Court denied the motion. Ultimately, the District Court found that Laidlaw violated the mercury discharge limitation. In issuing its judgment, the District Court concluded that a civil penalty of $405,800 would be adequate to forestall future violations, given that Laidlaw would have to reimburse the plaintiffs for a significant amount of legal fees and had itself incurred significant legal expenses. The court declined to order injunctive relief because Laidlaw, after the lawsuit began, had achieved substantial compliance with the terms of its permit. FOE appealed to the amount of the District Court's civil penalty judgment, but did not appeal the denial of declaratory or injunctive relief. The Court of Appeals ordered the case to be dismissed. The appellate court held that the case had become moot once Laidlaw complied with the terms of its permit. The court reasoned that the only remedy currently available to FOE, civil penalties payable to the Government, would not redress any injury FOE had suffered.

Question

Does an environmental group's citizen suit for civil penalties under the Clean Water Act become moot when the defendant, after commencement of the litigation, has come into compliance with its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit?

Media for Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 12, 1999 in Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc.

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 98-822, Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Environmental Services.

Mr. Terris.

Bruce J. Terris:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The district court in this case, after two trials, found that Laidlaw had violated the Clean Water Act 1,412 times.

One hundred and thirty of those times had come in the immediate 6 months before the complaint was filed, and another 36 of the violations came after the complaint was filed.

The complaint alleged ongoing violations and it sought injunctive relief.

Five years... three... five years later, after the complaint had been filed, the district court found that there was no long... that Laidlaw was in substantial compliance and therefore there was no need at that point to issue injunctive relief.

Instead, it imposed a penalty of $405,000, specifically to deter future violations.

Six years after the suit was filed, the Fourth Circuit held, solely because injunctive relief was no longer in the case, that the case had to be dismissed as moot, and that attorney's fees would not be payable to the plaintiff.

We submit that Article III does not compel such a perverse result.

The plaintiffs submit that, even though the civil penalty is payable to the United States Treasury, that plaintiffs benefited from the imposition of a penalty because penalties deter future violations.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, I guess what happened, perhaps, was the district court handled this at a time before we'd handed down Steel Company.

Bruce J. Terris:

That's correct, Your Honor.

Steel Company came--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And the Fourth Circuit reviewed it after that case had come down, and apparently placed some reliance on that, right?

That seems to be--

Bruce J. Terris:

--It relied solely on Steel Company.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--Yes.

That seems to be what happened in effect.

Bruce J. Terris:

That there--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

So it boils down to what we meant in Steel Company--

Bruce J. Terris:

--I think that's correct, Your Honor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--as applied to this case.

Bruce J. Terris:

I think that's correct, and I think it also involves what the relationship of Steel Company is to this Court's prior decision in Gwaltney, because our argument is that Gwaltney is precisely this case.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, except Gwaltney didn't really get into the circumstances expressly, and I guess Steel Co. did, so we have to reconcile that in some way.

Bruce J. Terris:

I think, Your Honor, that Gwaltney did get into the circumstances.

It would have been extremely difficult for this Court to over... to have overlooked the fact that there was no injunctive relief in Gwaltney.

Antonin Scalia:

This is a jurisdictional point, and our cases are replete with the statements that actions by this Court on jurisdictional matters that do not discuss the jurisdictional matters are not precedential.

Bruce J. Terris:

That's correct, Your Honor, but--

Antonin Scalia:

And did Gwaltney discuss the jurisdictional matter explicitly?