CTS Corp. v. Waldburger,
573 U.S. ___ (2014)

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Justia Opinion Summary

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, 42 U.S.C. 960, contains a provision (section 9658) that preempts statutes of limitations applicable to state-law actions for personal injury or property damage arising from the release of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant into the environment. Section 9658 adopts the discovery rule, so that statutes of limitations begin to run when a plaintiff discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, that the harm was caused by the contaminant because person who is exposed to a toxic contaminant may not develop or show signs of resulting injury for many years. CTS sold property on which it had stored chemicals as part its operations as an electronics plant; 24 years later, owners of parts of that property and adjacent landowners, sued, alleging damages from the stored contaminants. CTS moved to dismiss, citing a state statute of repose that prevented subjecting a defendant to a tort suit brought more than 10 years after the defendant’s last culpable act. Because CTS’s last act occurred when it sold the property, the district court granted the motion. The Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the statute’s remedial purpose favored preemption. The Supreme Court reversed in part, concluding that section 9658 does not pre-empt state statutes of repose. Statutes of limitations promote justice by encouraging plaintiffs to pursue claims diligently and begin to run when a claim accrues. Statutes of repose effect a legislative judgment that a defendant should be free from liability after a legislatively determined amount of time and are measured from the date of the defendant’s last culpable actor omission. Under the language of the statute, pre-emption is characterized as an exception to the regular rule that the “the statute of limitations established under State law” applies; it is proper to conclude that Congress did not intend to preempt statutes of repose.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

CTS CORP. v. WALDBURGER et al.

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fourth circuit

No. 13–339. Argued April 23, 2014—Decided June 9, 2014

Federal law pre-empts state-law statutes of limitations in certain tort actions involving personal injury or property damage arising from the release of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant into the environment. 42 U. S. C. §9658. Petitioner CTS Corporation sold property on which it had stored chemicals as part its operations as an electronics plant. Twenty-four years later, respondents, the owners of portions of that property and adjacent landowners, sued, alleging damages from the stored contaminants. CTS moved to dismiss, citing a state statute of repose that prevented subjecting a defendant to a tort suit brought more than 10 years after the defendant’s last culpable act. Because CTS’s last act occurred when it sold the property, the District Court granted the motion. Finding §9658 ambiguous, the Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the statute’s remedial purpose favored pre-emption.

Held: The judgment is reversed.

723 F. 3d 434, reversed.

     Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to all but Part II–D, concluding that §9658 does not pre-empt state statutes of repose. Pp. 5–16.

     (a) The outcome here turns on whether §9658 distinguishes between statutes of limitations and statutes of repose, which are both used to limit the temporal extent or duration of tort liability. There is considerable common ground in the policies underlying the two, but their specified time periods are measured differently and they seek to attain different purposes and objectives. Statutes of limitations are designed to promote justice by encouraging plaintiffs to pursue claims diligently and begin to run when a claim accrues. Statutes of repose effect a legislative judgment that a defendant should be free from liability after a legislatively determined amount of time and are measured from the date of the defendant’s last culpable act or omission. The application of equitable tolling underscores their difference in purpose. Because a statute of limitations’ purpose is not furthered by barring an untimely action brought by a plaintiff who was prevented by extraordinary circumstances from timely filing, equitable tolling operates to pause the running of the statute. The purpose of statutes of repose are unaffected by such circumstances, and equitable tolling does not apply. Pp. 5–8.

     (b) The text and structure of §9658 resolve this case. Under that provision, pre-emption is characterized as an “[e]xception,” §9658(a)(1), to the regular rule that the “the statute of limitations established under State law” applies. The “applicable limitations period,” the “commencement date” of which is subject to pre-emption, is defined as “the period specified in a statute of limitations.” §9658(b)(2). That term appears four times, and “statute of repose” does not appear at all. While it is apparent from the historical development of the two terms that their general usage has not always been precise, their distinction was well enough established to be reflected in the 1982 Study Group Report that guided §9658’s enactment, acknowledged the distinction, and urged the repeal of both types of statutes. Because that distinction is not similarly reflected in §9658, it is proper to conclude that Congress did not intend to pre-empt statutes of repose.

     Other textual features further support this conclusion. It would be awkward to use the singular “applicable limitations period” to mandate pre-emption of two different time periods with two different purposes. And the definition of that limitations period as “the period” during which a “civil action” under state law “may be brought,” §9658(b)(2), presupposes that a civil action exists. A statute of repose, in contrast, can prohibit a cause of action from ever coming into existence. Section 9658’s inclusion of a tolling rule also suggests that the statute’s reach is limited to statutes of limitations, which traditionally have been subject to tolling. Respondents contend that §9658 also effects an implied pre-emption because statutes of repose create an obstacle to Congress’ purposes and objectives, see Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U. S. 555 –564. But the level of generality at which the statute’s purpose is framed affects whether a specific reading will further or hinder that purpose. Here, where Congress chose to leave many areas of state law untouched, respondents have not shown that statutes of repose pose an unacceptable obstacle to the attainment of statutory purposes. Pp. 8–16.

     Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II–D. Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined that opinion in full, and Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined as to all but Part II–D. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Roberts, C. J., and Thomas and Alito, JJ., joined. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Breyer, J., joined.

Primary Holding

Section 9658 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, 42 U.S.C. § 960, which preempts statutes of limitations applicable to state-law actions for personal injury or property damage arising from the release of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant into the environment, does not pre-empt state statutes of repose, because the latter are distinguishable from statutes of limitations in that they release a defendant from liability after a legislatively determined amount of time after the date of the defendant’s last culpable act or omission.

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