Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiffs filed a case against Defendant to stop the use of naval sonar in its training programs, because the sonar might adversely affect marine mammals. A preliminary injunction was granted by a federal district court against Defendant and this was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must establish that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.
Of course, military interests do not always trump other considerations, and we have not held that they do.View Full Point of Law
The Naval training exercises for the last 40 years included the use of modern sonar to detect and track submarines, including active sonar which involved emission and receiving of ultrasonic waves. Plaintiffs opposed this because of the possible harm it may cause to marine mammals. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibited harassment of marine mammals, but the Secretary of Defense may exempt certain action if he deems that such action is necessary in the interests of national defense. Such an exemption had been granted for naval training using sonar. Another federal act, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, made it mandatory for federal agencies to assess and state the environmental impact of every federal action which has a significant effect on the environment. Under this Act, an agency could be exempt if the agency conducted a smaller-scale environmental assessment (EA), based on which it determined that there was no significant impact of the planned activity on the environment. This type of EA was prepared by Defendant in 2007. Plaintiffs subsequently sued Defendant to stop the naval use of sonar in its training programs. A preliminary injunction in favor of Plaintiffs and against Defendant was granted, and upheld in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Must a plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction establish that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest?
Yes. The Court reversed and vacated the preliminary injunction, holding that Plaintiffs only showed that there would be a possibility of irreparable harm which did not meet the standard.
Justice Ginsburg & Souter
Consistent with a court’s equity powers, the majority should not be so quick to impose a rigid, predetermined standard that requires a litigant to prove probable success or injury before awarding equitable relief. Instead, the Court should evaluate a claim for equitable relief on a “sliding scale” and sometimes award relief based on a lower likelihood of harm when the likelihood of success on the merits is very high.
A plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must establish that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest. Because injunctive relief is an extraordinary remedy, a court may award it only upon a clear showing that the plaintiffs are entitled to the requested relief, including showing that an irreparable injury is likely, not just possible.
Here, the district court found that the plaintiffs successfully showed a likelihood of success on the merits but only a “possibility” of irreparable harm if injunctive relief was not granted. Moreover, even if the plaintiffs had shown a likelihood of irreparable injury from the Navy’s training exercises, any such injury was outweighed by the public interest in effective, realistic training of its navy to face enemy submarines. Because great deference was given to the professional judgment of military authorities concerning the relative importance of a particular military interest, the national security interest outweighed the ecological, scientific, and recreational interests held by the plaintiffs. The judgment of the court of appeals is reversed, and the preliminary injunction is vacated to the extent it has been challenged by the Navy.