Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiffs gave Defendant requisite notice that they would sue Defendant under the Clean Water Act for discharging pollutants into a waterway. Before the notice period expired, Defendant entered into a settlement with the state to pay a civil penalty and to make every effort to comply with the permit requirement. Shortly after this settlement was reached, plaintiffs filed this lawsuit.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Civil penalties paid to the government can be used to redress private injury.
A defendant claiming that its voluntary compliance moots a case bears the formidable burden of showing that it is absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.View Full Point of Law
The Clean Water Act permits individuals with an interest that is or may be negatively affected to bring a suit to enforce any of the Act’s pollution permit limitations. The Act requires potential plaintiffs to give the alleged violator sixty day’s notice before initiating such a suit, so that the alleged violator has the opportunity to come into compliance with the Act, which would render the suit unnecessary. The Supreme Court has held that citizens lack standing to sue for violations that have ceased by the time the complaint is filed. The Act also permits district courts to order injunctions and civil penalties payable to the government.
Defendant Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc. bought a hazardous waste incinerator facility, and discharged pollutants into a waterway in excess of the limits set by their permit. Plaintiff Friends of the Earth and Citizens Local Environmental Action Network, Inc. and other plaintiff organizations notified Laidlaw of their intention to file a suit under the Clean Water Act after the requisite 60-day notice period. The day before the notice period expired, the State and Laidlaw reached a settlement requiring Laidlaw to pay $100,000 in civil penalties, and to make every effort to comply with the permit obligations. Three days later, plaintiffs filed this suit against Laidlaw seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and civil penalties. The District court found that Laidlaw gained $1,092, 581 from its period of noncompliance with its permit, and assessed a civil penalty of $405,800. The District Court denied injunctive relief because Laidlaw had recently been in compliance with the permit requirements. The Court of Appeals held that the case was moot because civil penalties were the only available remedy, and they would not redress any injury the plaintiffs had suffered.
Justice Scalia argued that the evidence in the record was not sufficient to show injury in fact, and that the Court exceeded constitutional limits by upholding civil penalties for private actions.
To satisfy Article III’s standing requirements, claimants must show that (1) they suffered an injury in fact that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged action of the opposing party; and (3) it is likely that a favorable decision will redress the injury. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife. Defendant Laidlaw argued that the plaintiff did not show an injury in fact because they did not present evidence of harm to the environment. The Court rejected this argument, holding that injury to the plaintiff, not injury to the environment, would satisfy a showing of injury in fact. According to the Supreme Court, evidence like an affidavit from a member of the plaintiff organization describing ways he altered his behavior to avoid pollution in North Tyger River did establish injury in fact. The Supreme Court held that its precedent supported findings that claimants show injury in fact when they show they use an area, and that the aesthetic and recreational values of the area is lessened because of the opposing party’s activity. The plaintiff’s asserted injury in fact here was not analogous to the asserted injuries in fact were found insufficient in Lujan and Los Angeles v. Lyons.
Defendant Laidlaw also argued that the plaintiff lacked standing to seek civil penalties, because civil penalties are paid to the government, not the plaintiff, and do not redress plaintiffs’ injuries. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, holding that civil penalties do redress citizen plaintiffs’ injuries by deterring defendants from continuing to engage in the types of violations that created the injury.
Finally, the Supreme Court held that the case is not moot. The Supreme Court’s established standard for mootness is that subsequent events make it clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior could not be expected to recur. The party asserting mootness has the burden of proof in this analysis. The Supreme Court asserted that there are circumstances in which it is too speculative to find that the defendant will engage in harmful conduct for standing purposes, but not for mootness purposes.