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Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.

    Brief Fact Summary. The Natural Resources Defense Council (P) filed a case against the U.S. Navy (the Navy) (D) 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 the Navy (D) and this was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. When a plaintiff seeks a preliminary injunction, he must establish that the case is of such merits as to be likely to succeed, that without the injunction irretrievable harm may be done, that the balance of fairness and policy favors his side of the case and that an injunction is in the public interest.

    Facts. The Naval training exercises for the last 40 years include the use of modern sonar to detect and track submarines, including active sonar which involves emission and receiving of ultrasonic waves. The Natural Resources Defense Council (the Council) (P) opposes this because of the possible harm it may cause to marine mammals, including hearing loss, decompression sickness and major behavioral changes. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits harassment of marine mammals, but such actions may be exempted by the Secretary of Defense if he feels they are 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, makes it mandatory for federal agencies to assess and state the environmental impact of every federal action which has a significant effect on the environment. The exception is if the agency conducts a smaller-scale environmental assessment (EA), based on which it determines that there is no significant impact of the planned activity on the environment. This type of EA was prepared by the Navy in 2007. This was followed by the Council (P) suing the Navy (D) to stop the naval use of sonar in its training programs. The preliminary injunction in favor of the Council (P) and against the Navy (D) was granted, and upheld in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

    Issue. Is it necessary that the plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must establish that the case is likely to succeed on its own merits, that if preliminary relief is not granted he will probably suffer irreparable harm, that if the fairness and policy of the case are taken into account the balance will tilt towards his side, and the public interest is served by granting the injunction?

    Held. (Roberts, C.J.) Yes. A plaintiff who seeks a preliminary injunction must prove that his case is likely to succeed on its own merits, that if preliminary relief is not granted he will probably suffer irreparable harm, that if the fairness and policy of the case are taken into account the balance will tilt towards his side, and that the public interest is served by granting the injunction. The first point observed was that the district court and the Ninth Circuit both granted the preliminary injunction on the plaintiff’s establishment of the strong merits of his case and the likelihood of winning the case on its merits, but with a demonstrated possibility of irreparable harm. This standard of only “possible” harm is too lax, and the irreparable injury should be likely rather than only possible. In reality however this extraordinary remedy was granted because both the courts found that rather than a possibility, the Council (P) had established that irreparable injury was almost certain, as based upon the court record. This standard is different from that quoted in the judgment, however. The second point is that the injury to marine mammal life, and thereby to the ecology of the area, and to scientific study and recreational scope of the area, though likely to be substantial, is outweighed by far by the seriousness of the consequences if the Navy should fail to be prepared to face enemy submarines. This affects both the safety of the fleet and public safety with the utmost seriousness. Thus the preliminary injunction should not have been granted. After deciding on the merits of the case, a permanent injunction against the Navy cannot be awarded with discretion. The decision was reversed and the preliminary injunction was set aside.

    Dissent. (Ginsberg, J.) Since the jurisdiction of the equity court allows flexibility in deciding claims, the quota of relief can be awarded with a high degree of fairness, and when the case is extremely likely to win on its own merits, the relief granted can be based on a low likelihood that the plaintiff will suffer harm.

    Concurrence. NA

    Discussion. The Supreme Court rarely hears a challenge to a preliminary injunction restraining the opposite party from a proposed course of action. Instead it is more usual for the Court to decide on the merits of a petitioner’s claims. However in this case, the Court was concerned to convey its views that the national security threat represented by interference with realistic training of the Navy was so great as to mitigate the environmental threat represented by the Council in its petition. Thus the lower court should find its clear duty in refusing to grant a permanent injunction in agreement with the preliminary injunction, even after the case is decided on its merits. This would have an additional benefit of helping to guide the final verdict of the district court in favor of sonar use by the Navy, even if the Navy is found to be guilty of violating the environmental laws. The case also shows how the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals put forward an invalid standard of “possible” irreparable harm as a criterion for granting preliminary relief, and the rejection of the argument by the Supreme Court, a step which was sought by the U.S. government for some time past.


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