Ruckelshause v. Sierra Club

PETITIONER: Ruckelshause
LOCATION: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

DOCKET NO.: 82-242
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 463 US 680 (1983)
ARGUED: Apr 25, 1983
DECIDED: Jul 01, 1983

Harold R. Tyler, Jr. - on behalf of Respondent
Ms. Kathryn A. Oberly - on behalf of Petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Ruckelshause v. Sierra Club

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 25, 1983 in Ruckelshause v. Sierra Club

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency against the Sierra Club.

Ms. Oberly, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Ms. Kathryn A. Oberly:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court.

This is a Clean Air Act case in which the District of Columbia Circuit has ordered the government to pay respondents $90,000 in attorney's fees even though they were completely unsuccessful on the merits of their lawsuit.

The government challenges this fee award because we don't believe that Congress has authorized attorney's fees for totally unsuccessful parties.

The case began in 1979 when respondents filed petitions for review in the Court of Appeals challenging EPA's new Source Performance Standards for coal-fired generating plants.

EDF, the Environmental Defense Fund didn't challenge the substance of the regulations at all.

Instead, it argued that EPA had had meetings with people outside of the agency after the close of the public comment period and that those meetings had resulted in a less stringent standard being adopted than would have otherwise been the case.

The Sierra Club challenged EPA's statutory authority to adopt the type of performance standard that it did and it also claimed that the rule was unsupported by evidence in the record.

The Court of Appeals rejected each and every one of respondent's arguments and upheld the EPA standards in every respect.

The court did write an extremely lengthy and comprehensive opinion on the merits, but nowhere in that opinion did the court suggest that its decision to uphold the regulations was a close one or that EPA had in any way acted improperly during the rulemaking.

After the decision on the merits, respondents sought attorney's fees under Section 307(f) of the Clean Air Act.

That section provides that in any judicial proceeding to review EPA regulations a court may award reasonable attorney fees whenever it determines that a fee award would be "appropriate".

The dispute in this case is about what Congress meant by the use of the word appropriate.

Warren E. Burger:

Was it your burden here today, Ms. Oberly, to persuade the court that this was an abuse of discretion on the part of the--

Ms. Kathryn A. Oberly:

We're happy to take that burden on, Your Honor, because we believe it was an abuse of discretion.

When one looks at Congress's purposes in enacting this statute, it becomes clear that Congress did not intend or contemplate that attorney's fees would be awarded to losing parties, who neither prevailed in the technical sense of obtaining a final judgment in court, nor prevailed in the nontechnical sense of getting the agency to change its conduct, change the regulations or in any way alter its administration of the act.

Warren E. Burger:

--What do you think Congress meant by the language when appropriate that fees should be awarded... when appropriate?

Ms. Kathryn A. Oberly:

We think the legislative history shows that Congress meant two things.

There were two classes of plaintiff... of litigants that Congress was concerned about.

The first class was prevailing defendants, which would include the government, who were subjected to frivolous or harassing litigation and the second class would be plaintiffs who either won in court in the traditional sense of obtaining a judgment or who achieved the result they set... or something close to the result they set out to achieve without obtaining a formal judgment.

That could be done, for example, by a settlement or by EPA agreeing to change its regulations, by something short of a final judgment on the merits.

But there is no indication, Your Honor, in the legislative history that Congress understood that, or thought that it was authorizing fees to parties whose only contribution to the Clean Air Act was to have a court validate precisely what the agency had done.

The Court of Appeals standard in this case is that attorney's fees are appropriate whenever a party substantially contributes to the goals of the Clean Air Act and on its face, we don't have a real quarrel with that standard.

Our problem is with the standard as applied to this and other cases like it where the plaintiffs, or the petitioners, have failed to accomplish anything concrete for the purposes of the Clean Air Act.

The court found that the way respondents had contributed to the goals of the clean air act was by labeling judicial review itself as an express and an overriding goal of the statute and then it found that respondents had contributed to that goal here by making exemplary presentations on novel, important and complex issues.

Our problem with that ruling is that Congress has never said in the statute, which does set out the goals of the statute, that judicial review is an overriding goal, an express goal or any goal at all of the Clean Air Act.

It's quite clear from the purposes of the statute that the primary goal of the statute and the relevant one to this case is to improve and maintain the quality of the nation's air and when EPA fails to do that by not following Congress' instructions, then judicial review does help to further that goal.

But when EPA has already done what Congress told it to do, judicial review for its own sake is not a statutory goal and it's certainly not one that Congress had indicated it wanted to subsidize with attorney's fee awards.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Ms. Oberly, are you satisfied with a standard that says if the suit furthered the goals of the statute, it is appropriate?