Midlantic Nat'l Bank v. NJDEP
474 U.S. 494 (1986)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Midlantic Nat'l Bank v. NJDEP, 474 U.S. 494 (1986)

Midlantic National Bank v. New Jersey

Department of Environmental Protection

No. 84-801

Argued October 16, 1985

Decided January 27, 1986*

474 U.S. 494

Syllabus

Quanta Resources Corp. (Quanta) processed waste oil at facilities located in New York and New Jersey. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) discovered that Quanta had violated a provision of the operating permit for the New Jersey facility by accepting oil contaminated with a toxic carcinogen. During negotiations with NJDEP for the cleanup of the New Jersey site, Quanta filed a petition for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, and after NJDEP had issued an order requiring cleanup, Quanta converted the action to a liquidation proceeding under Chapter 7. An investigation of the New York facility then revealed that Quanta had also accepted similarly contaminated oil at that site. The trustee notified the creditors and the Bankruptcy Court that he intended to abandon the property under § 554(a) of the Bankruptcy Code, which authorizes a trustee to "abandon any property of the estate that is burdensome to the estate or that is of inconsequential value to the estate." The City and the State of New York objected, contending that abandonment would threaten the public's health and safety, and would violate state and federal environmental law. The Bankruptcy Court approved the abandonment, and, after the District Court affirmed, an appeal was taken to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Meanwhile, the Bankruptcy Court also approved the trustee's proposed abandonment of the New Jersey facility over NJDEP's objection, and NJDEP took a direct appeal to the Court of Appeals. In separate judgments, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Bankruptcy Court erred in permitting abandonment.

Held: A trustee in bankruptcy may not abandon property in contravention of a state statute or regulation that is reasonably designed to protect the public health or safety from identified hazards. Congress did not intend for § 554(a) to preempt all state and local laws. A bankruptcy court does not have the power to authorize an abandonment without formulating

Page 474 U. S. 495

conditions that will adequately protect the public's health and safety. Pp. 474 U. S. 500-507.

(a) Before the 1978 revisions of the Bankruptcy Code, which codified in § 554 the judicially developed rule of abandonment, the trustee's abandonment power had been limited by a judicially developed doctrine intended to protect legitimate state and federal interests. In codifying the rule of abandonment, Congress also presumably included the corollary that a trustee could not exercise his abandonment power in violation of certain state and federal laws. Pp. 474 U. S. 500-501.

(b) Neither this Court's decisions nor Congress has granted a trustee in bankruptcy powers that would lend support to a right to abandon property in contravention of state or local laws designed to protect public health or safety. Where the Bankruptcy Code has conferred other special powers upon the trustee, and where there was no common law limitation on such powers, Congress has expressly provided that the trustee's efforts to marshal and distribute the estate's assets must yield to governmental interests in public health and safety. It cannot be assumed that Congress, having placed such limitations upon other aspects of trustees' operations, intended to discard the well-established judicial restriction on the abandonment power. Moreover, 28 U.S.C. § 959(b), which commands the trustee to "manage and operate the property in his possession . . . according to the requirements of the valid laws of the State," provides additional evidence that Congress did not intend for the Bankruptcy Code to preempt all state laws. Pp. 474 U. S. 502-505.

(c) Additional support for restricting the abandonment power is found in repeated congressional emphasis, in other statutes, on the goal of protecting the environment against toxic pollution. Pp. 474 U. S. 505-506.

739 F.2d 912 and 739 F.2d 927, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 474 U. S. 507.

Page 474 U. S. 496

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