Friends of Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc.
528 U.S. 167 (2000)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1999

Syllabus

FRIENDS OF THE EARTH, INC., ET AL. v. LAIDLAW ENVIRONMENTAL SERVICES (TOC), INC.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

No. 98-822. Argued October 12, 1999-Decided January 12,2000

Defendant-respondent Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc., bought a facility in Roebuck, South Carolina, that included a wastewater treatment plant. Shortly thereafter, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), acting under the Clean Water Act (Act), 33 U. S. C. § 1342(a)(I), granted Laidlaw a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The permit authorized Laidlaw to discharge treated water into the North Tyger River, but limited, among other things, the discharge of pollutants into the waterway. Laidlaw began to discharge various pollutants into the waterway; these discharges, particularly of mercury, an extremely toxic pollutant, repeatedly exceeded the limits set by the permit.

On April 10, 1992, plaintiff-petitioners Friends of the Earth and Citizens Local Environmental Action Network, Inc. (referred to collectively here, along with later joined plaintiff-petitioner Sierra Club, as "FOE"), notified Laidlaw of their intention to file a citizen suit against it under the Act, 33 U. S. C. § 1365(a), after the expiration of the requisite 60-day notice period. DREC acceded to Laidlaw's request to file a lawsuit against the company. On the last day before FOE's 60-day notice period expired, DREC and Laidlaw reached a settlement requiring Laidlaw to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and to make "every effort" to comply with its permit obligations.

On June 12, 1992, FOE filed this citizen suit against Laidlaw, alleging noncompliance with the NPDES permit and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and an award of civil penalties. Laidlaw moved for summary judgment on the ground that FOE lacked Article III standing to bring the lawsuit. Mter examining affidavits and deposition testimony from members of the plaintiff organizations, the District Court denied the motion, finding that the plaintiffs had standing. The District Court also denied Laidlaw's motion to dismiss on the ground that the citizen suit was barred under § 1365(b)(I)(B) by DREC's prior action against the company. Mter FOE initiated this suit, but before the District Court rendered judgment on January 22, 1997, Laidlaw violated the mercury discharge limitation in its permit 13 times and committed 13 monitoring and 10 reporting violations. In issuing its judgment, the


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Syllabus

District Court found that Laidlaw had gained a total economic benefit of $1,092,581 as a result of its extended period of noncompliance with the permit's mercury discharge limit; nevertheless, the court concluded that a civil penalty of $405,800 was appropriate. In particular, the District Court found that the judgment's "total deterrent effect" would be adequate to forestall future violations, given that Laidlaw would have to reimburse the plaintiffs for a significant amount of legal fees and had itself incurred significant legal expenses. The court declined to order injunctive relief because Laidlaw, after the lawsuit began, had achieved substantial compliance with the terms of its permit.

FOE appealed as to the amount of the District Court's civil penalty judgment, but did not appeal the denial of declaratory or injunctive relief. The Fourth Circuit vacated the District Court's order and remanded with instructions to dismiss the action. Assuming, arguendo, that FOE initially had standing, the appellate court held that the case had become moot once Laidlaw complied with the terms of its permit and the plaintiffs failed to appeal the denial of equitable relief. Citing Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment, 523 U. S. 83, the court reasoned that the only remedy currently available to FOE, civil penalties payable to the Government, would not redress any injury FOE had suffered. The court added that FOE's failure to obtain relief on the merits precluded recovery of attorneys' fees or costs because such an award is available only to a "prevailing or substantially prevailing party" under § 1365(d). According to Laidlaw, the entire Roebuck facility has since been permanently closed, dismantled, and put up for sale, and all discharges from the facility have permanently ceased.

Held: The Fourth Circuit erred in concluding that a citizen suitor's claim for civil penalties must be dismissed as moot when the defendant, after commencement of the litigation, has come into compliance with its NPDES permit. Pp.180-195.

(a) The Constitution's case-or-controversy limitation on federal judicial authority, Art. III, § 2, underpins both standing and mootness doctrine, but the two inquiries differ in crucial respects. Because the Fourth Circuit was persuaded that the case had become moot, it simply assumed that FOE had initial standing. See Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U. S. 43, 66-67. But because this Court concludes that the Court of Appeals erred as to mootness, this Court has an obligation to assure itself that FOE had Article III standing at the outset of the litigation. P. 180.

(b) FOE had Article III standing to bring this action. This Court has held that to satisfy Article Ill's standing requirements, a plaintiff must show "injury in fact," causation, and redressability. Lujan v. De-


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Full Text of Opinion

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Primary Holding

A party trying to show that the mootness doctrine applies because it will voluntarily cease an activity must show that the activity would not recur.

Facts

Under the Clean Water Act, corporations such as Laidlaw Environmental Services received permits that limited them to certain amounts of discharges of dangerous substances. Friends of the Earth, Inc. brought an action against Laidlaw on the grounds that one of its plants was discharging more mercury than its permit allowed. Before the litigation was resolved on appeal, Laidlaw started to comply with the Clean Water Act limits and closed the plant that had exceeded them. It argued that the case was now moot because it had corrected the problems from which it had stemmed.

Opinions

Majority

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • John Paul Stevens
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • David H. Souter
  • Stephen G. Breyer

The party claiming mootness has the burden of showing that the offending behavior cannot be repeated. Otherwise, that party could resume the behavior as soon as the case was dismissed for mootness. The potential for future violations gives rise to a disputed question of fact in this instance, since the company has retained its permit.

Concurrence

  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

Concurrence

  • Anthony M. Kennedy (Author)

Dissent

  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • Clarence Thomas

Case Commentary

If there were no such exception to the mootness doctrine, a defendant could thwart the efforts of other parties or the government to enforce the law indefinitely. They could stop operations whenever a case was filed and resume once it was dismissed. Practically speaking, however, repeatedly opening and closing the same facility might not be a logical, cost-effective business choice.

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