United States v. Atlantic Research Corp.

PETITIONER:United States
RESPONDENT:Atlantic Research Corporation
LOCATION:United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 06-562
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 551 US 128 (2007)
GRANTED: Jan 19, 2007
ARGUED: Apr 23, 2007
DECIDED: Jun 11, 2007

Jay D. Geck – on behalf of Washington, et al., as amici curiae, supporting the respondent
Owen T. Armstrong Jr. – argued the cause for the respondent
Thomas G. Hungar – Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Atlantic Research Corp. (Atlantic) built rocket motors for the United States government at an Arkansas facility. When residue from burnt rocket fuel contaminated the site, Atlantic voluntarily cleaned up the contamination and later sought cost recovery from the government under Section 107(a) and Section 113(f) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). Some Courts of Appeals had interpreted Section 107(a) as implicitly allowing a party responsible for contamination to compel other partly-responsible parties to contribute to the clean-up. The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 added Section 113(f), which makes explicit the right to sue for contribution.

While Atlantic was negotiating with the government, the Supreme Court ruled inCooper Industries, Inc. v. Aviall Services, Inc. that a party cannot bring a Section 113(f) claim for contribution unless it is already the subject of a Section 107(a) contamination action. Atlantic filed a new claim for contribution under Section 107(a), but a district court denied the claim. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit had previously ruled that a liable party must use Section 113(f), not Section 107(a), to file a contribution claim. Atlantic argued that failure to meet the requirements of Section 113(f) did not foreclose the implied Section 107(a) right to sue other partly-responsible parties for contribution.


Can a party that is potentially responsible for the cost of cleaning up contaminated property under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) bring an action against another potentially responsible party under Section 107(a), even if the party does not satisfy the requirements for bringing an action for contribution under Section 113(f) of CERCLA?

Media for United States v. Atlantic Research Corp.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 23, 2007 in United States v. Atlantic Research Corp.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 11, 2007 in United States v. Atlantic Research Corp.

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Thomas has the opinion of the court in case 06-562, United States versus Atlantic Research Corporation.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on the writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Respondent Atlantic Research leads the facility where it retrofitted rocket motors for petitioner the United States.

The retrofitting process resulted in contamination of the facility.

Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), both Atlantic Research and the United States are potentially responsible for the contamination.

After Atlantic Research voluntarily cleaned up the site it sought to recover some of its expenses from the United States by filing suit under CERCLA Sections 107(a) and 113(f).

After Atlantic Research filed suit we decided Cooper Industries versus Aviall Services, which foreclose Atlantic Research’s Section 113(f) claim for contribution.

The District Court then dismissed Atlantic Research’s 107(a) claim but the Court of Appeals reversed and held that Section 107(a) permitted one potentially responsible party sue another.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

CERCLA Section 107(a) defines four categories of persons as potentially responsible parties and makes those persons liable for certain contamination cause.

CERCLA also authorizes two causes for the actions for private parties.

In Section 107(a), that permits cost recovery by certain parties and Section 113(f) it permits liable parties to seek contribution.

The dispute here seen is on what person subparagraph (B) of Section 107(a) permits to seek cost recovery.

The text of subparagraph (B) allows suits by “any other person.”

In our view the phrase “any other person” in subparagraph (B) can be understood only with reference to the immediately preceding subparagraph.

Accordingly, we hold that the phrase “any other person” refers to persons other than those listed in the preceding subparagraph because this preceding subparagraph list only the United States or State or an Indian tribe all persons other than those three may sue under subparagraph (B).

Atlantic Research therefore qualifies as any other person and may recover its cost under the plain language of subparagraph (B).

Contrary to the government’s arguments this interpretation of Section 107(a) will not unduly conflict with Section 113(f)’s cause of action for contribution.

The two provisions authorized clearly distinct remedies and provide causes of actions to persons in different procedural circumstances.

Accordingly, Section 107(a) does not swallow the remedy provided by Section 113(f).

Nor does today’s decision undermine the settlement bar provided in Section 113(f)(2).

The opinion of the court is unanimous.