Sackett v. EPA

PETITIONER: Chantell Sackett, et vir
RESPONDENT: Environmental Protection Agency, et al.
LOCATION: Jerusalem

DOCKET NO.: 10-1062
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 566 US (2012)
GRANTED: Jun 27, 2011
ARGUED: Jan 09, 2012
DECIDED: Mar 21, 2012

Damien M. Schiff - for the petitioners
Malcolm L. Stewart - Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent

Facts of the case

Chantell and Mike Sackett own a half-acre lot in a residential area near Priest Lake, Idaho. In April and May of 2007, the Sacketts filled in about one-half acre of that property with dirt and rock in preparation for building a house. On November 26, 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a compliance order against the Sacketts. The compliance order alleged that the parcel is a wetland subject to the Clean Water Act and that the Sacketts violated the CWA by filling in their property without first obtaining a permit. The order required the Sacketts to remove the fill material and restore the parcel to its original condition.

The Sacketts sought a hearing with the EPA to challenge the finding that the Parcel is subject to the CWA. The EPA did not grant the Sacketts a hearing and continued to assert CWA jurisdiction over the parcel. The Sacketts filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. They challenged the compliance order as (1) arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act; (2) issued without a hearing in violation of the Sacketts' procedural due process rights; and (3) issued on the basis of an "any information available" standard that is unconstitutionally vague. The district court granted the EPA's motion to dismiss, finding that the CWA precludes judicial review of compliance orders before EPA has started an enforcement action in federal court. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court order.


Do landowners have a right to go to court to challenge a Clean Water Act order of the Environmental Protection Agency?

Media for Sackett v. EPA

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 09, 2012 in Sackett v. EPA

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 21, 2012 in Sackett v. EPA

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Scalia has our opinion in Case 10-1062, Sackett versus EPA.

Antonin Scalia:

I'm tired already.


This case is here on writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The Clean Water Act prohibits “the discharge of any pollutant by any person” into navigable waters, which the Act defines as “the waters -- the waters of the United States”.

If the Environmental Protection Agency determines that a violation has occurred, it may then either issue a compliance order or initiate a civil enforcement action.

If the agency initiates a civil enforcement action and wins, the resulting civil penalty may not exceed $37,500 per day for each violation.

But at least as the Government tells it, that amount doubles to $75,000 per day when the EPA initiates and wins a civil enforcement action after a person has failed to comply with the compliance order.

Michael and Chantell Sackett, the petitioners here, own a two thirds acre residential lot in Bonner County, Idaho.

The property lies just north of Priest Lake but is separated from the lake by several lots with permanent structures on them.

In preparation for building a house, the Sacketts filled in part of their lot with rock and dirt.

Some months later, they received a compliance order from the EPA which stated that their residential lot contained navigable waters and that their construction project violated the Act.

The compliance order directed them not only to stop filling the lot, but also to restore the lot to its pre-construction condition.

And the agency said, “For everyday the Sacketts failed to comply, they expose themselves to an additional $75,000 in potential liability.”

The Sacketts, who did not believe that their land contained navigable waters having -- never seen a ship or other vessel cross their yard, [Laughter] sought declaratory and injunctive relief in the Federal District Court.

They argue that the compliance order was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act and that it deprived them of due process in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

District Court dismissed the claims for want of subject matter jurisdiction and the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

The Court of Appeals held that the Clean Water Act precluded pre-enforcement judicial review of compliance orders and that such preclusion did not violate due process.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.

The Sacketts may bring a civil action under the APA to challenge the issuance of the EPA’s order.

The APA provides for judicial review of final agency action for which there is no other adequate remedy in court.

First, the compliance order here has all the hallmarks of finality.

Through it, the APA determined rights or obligations, requiring the Sacketts to restore their property according to an agency approved plan and to give the EPA access to the property.

Legal consequence is also a flow from the order, which according to the Government’s litigating position, exposes the Sacketts to double penalties in future enforcement proceedings and the order severely limits their ability to obtain a permit -- a permit for their fill from the Army Corps of Engineers if, indeed, they are filling waters of the United States.

Further, the -- the order’s issuance marks the consummation of the agency’s decision making process, since the EPA’s findings that the Sackett's land was subject to the Clean Water Act were not subject to further agency review.

Second, the Sacketts had, as review requires, no other adequate remedy in a court.

A civil action brought by the EPA ordinarily provides judicial review in such cases, but the Sacketts cannot initiate that civil action process and each day, they wait for the EPA to drop the hammer, they accrue additional potential liability.

The Sacketts also may not obtain an adequate remedy by applying to a separate agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, for a permit and then filing suit under the APA if that permit is -- is denied.

They -- they would claim then that their land is not subject to permitting.

Since the agency’s decision was final and since the Sacketts have no other adequate remedy in a court, they may bring their suit under the APA.