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The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution preserves the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which shields state governments and their agencies from federal litigation that seeks money damages or equitable relief.  In general, a state government can only be sued if sovereign immunity is expressly waived by statute.  For example, nearly every state and the federal government have enacted a “torts claims act” that abrogates sovereign immunity for certain claims based on the negligence of government employees, and states that accept federal funding are also not immune from federal discrimination suits.  Where no waiver exists, the doctrine of sovereign immunity is broad and provides a shield to environmental suits, including claims under the federal Comprehensive, Environmental, Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”), as the Fifth Circuit recently affirmed in United States Oil Recovery Site Potentially Responsible Parties Group v. Railroad Comm’n of Texas, et al., Dkt. No. 17-20361, __ F. 3d __, (5th Cir., Aug. 1, 2018).  Read More »

Rule 23(c)(4) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that, “[w]hen appropriate, an action may be brought or maintained as a class action with respect to particular issues.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(c)(4). Rule 23(b)(3), on the other hand, provides that a class action may be maintained only where “the court finds that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.” R. 23(b)(3). The Second, Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuit have adopted a “broad view” of class certification, permitting a district court to certify a class on particular issues under Federal Rule 23(c)(4), even where the traditional predominance requirements of Rule 23(b)(3) have not been met for the case as a whole. Only two circuits, the Fifth and Eleventh, ascribe to the more “narrow view” in which Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement is applied to prevent district courts from certifying particular issues under Rule 23(c)(4), without certifying an entire claim. In a recent case brought my homeowners alleging contamination to groundwater, Martin v. Behr Dayton Thermal Products LLC et al., No. 17-3663, --- F.3d ---, 2018 WL 3421711 (6th Cir. July 18, 2018), the Sixth Circuit has now joined the majority of circuits addressing this issue by endorsing the “broad view” of issue-based class certification. Read More »

Since 2009, the Delaware River Basin Commission (“DRBC”) has effectively placed a moratorium on fracking activity within the Delaware River Basin (the “Basin”), premised on its assertion that any such activity is a “project” over which the DRBC has authority. But in Wayne Land & Mineral Group LLC v. Del. River Basin Comm’n, No. 17-1800, 2018 WL 3233784 (July 3, 2018), the Third Circuit, overturning a Pennsylvania District Court decision, has held that Delaware River Basin Compact’s (the “Compact”) definition of “project” is ambiguous, and that the DRBC may be without authority over fracking. The Third Circuit’s decision creates uncertainty regarding the scope of the DRBC’s authority and the future of fracking and other land use activities in the Basin. Read More »

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed in part and reversed in part a preliminary injunction issued by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court with respect to newly promulgated regulations regarding unconventional well drilling. Marcellus Shale Coal. v. Dep't of Envtl. Prot. of Commonwealth, 115 MAP 2016, 2018 WL 2452607 (June 1, 2018). In the decision, the Court rejected the argument that courts should defer to a regulatory agency when deciding a preliminary injunction with respect to the agency’s authority to issue regulations, and also shed light on how it interprets allegations of vagueness and conflict in agency regulations. The majority opinion was authored by Chief Justice Saylor and was joined in full by all the associate justices except for Justice Donohue, who authored a concurring and dissenting opinion. Justice Donohue’s opinion, perhaps most notably, voices her disagreement with the Commonwealth Court’s interpretation of Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. Read More »

In August 2016, pursuant to § 7601 of the Clean Air Act, EPA issued its proposed Amendments to Regional Consistency Regulations (“Amended Regulations”), 40 C.F.R. §§ 56.3-56.5 (2017). The Amended Regulations state that, for purposes of implementing the Clean Air Act nationwide, EPA would only apply decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit uniformly:

Only decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and decisions of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court that arise from challenges to ‘nationally applicable regulations . . . or final action,’ as discussed in Clean Air Act section 307(b) (42 U.S.C. 7607(b)), shall apply uniformly.

In National Environmental Development Association’s Clean Air Project v. EPA, No. 16-1344 (D.C. Cir. June 8, 2016), industry groups (“Petitioners”) challenged the Amended Regulations in the D.C. Circuit on the basis that EPA is charged with implementing the Clean Air Act uniformly nationwide and must establish mechanisms for resolving judicially-created inconsistencies, as opposed to ignoring them. In the decision rendered earlier this month, the D.C. Circuit denied the petitions for review and upheld the Amended Regulations. Read More »

On June 1, 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, held that a municipality was required to amend its zoning ordinance before it could allow natural gas operations in a residential-agricultural zoning district. Gorsline v. Bd. of Sup. of Fairfield Twp., et al., No. 67 MAP 2016, 2018 WL 2448803 (June 1, 2018).  Specifically, the Court ruled that the Fairfield Township Board of Supervisors improperly found that the drilling and operation of a natural gas well in a Residential-Agricultural (“R-A”) district was “similar to” other uses in the R-A district.  Although the Township’s zoning ordinance did not specifically allow drilling, the zoning ordinance provided that when a use is not specifically permitted by the zoning ordinance, the Supervisors may permit the use if, among other things, it is “similar to and compatible with the other uses permitted in the zone where the subject property is located.”  The Supervisors found that Inflection Energy, LLC’s proposed gas drilling was “similar to” other uses in the R-A district.  The Commonwealth Court upheld the Supervisors’ decision, finding that the gas drilling was similar to and compatible with a “public service facility,” which is a conditional use in the R-A district, and which is defined as the “erection, construction, alteration, operation or maintenance of buildings, power plants or substations, water treatment plants or pumping stations; sewage disposal or pumping plants and other similar public service structures by a utility, whether publicly or privately owned, or by a municipal or other governmental agency, including the furnishing of electrical, gas, communication, water supply and sewage disposal services.”   Read More »

The Ninth Circuit recently reversed a grant of summary judgment by the United States District Court for the Central District of California in California Department of Toxic Substances Control v. Westside Delivery, LLC, No. 16-56558, 2018 WL 1973715 (9th Cir. Apr. 27, 2018), holding that a defendant who purchased real property at a tax sale had a “contractual relationship” with the previous owner “in connection with” the polluting activities, and therefore was not entitled to a third-party defense under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA). In this case, California’s environmental agency, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), sought to recover clean up costs from a subsequent owner of the contaminated property and the owner asserted as a defense, recognized under CERCLA, that the contamination was caused by a third party prior to it taking title with whom it had no contractual relationship. The matter before the court was one of first impression in the Ninth Circuit: “Does a defendant who buys real property at a tax sale have a ‘contractual relationship’ with the previous owner of the property within the meaning of CERCLA?” Id. at *1. The court’s affirmative answer will give pause to prospective tax-defaulted property purchasers who may find themselves liable for cleanup costs under CERCLA. Read More »

On April 24, 2018, the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board issued a decision denying a Petition for Supersedeas filed by Center for Coalfield Justice and Sierra Club which had sought to enjoin Consol Pennsylvania Coal Company, LLC (“Consol”) from mining under a stream called Polen Run located in Ryerson Station State Park See Center for Coalfield Justice v. DEP, EHB Docket No. 2018-028-R (Opinion issued Apr. 24, 2018) (“CCJ III”). The Board’s opinion reinforces the Board’s prior decisions applying Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution (“Environmental Rights Amendment” or “ERA”) in the context of a permitting decision in light of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Pa. Environmental Defense Found. v. Commonwealth, 161 A.3d 911 (Pa. 2017) (“PEDF”).  Read More »

Last Thursday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that environmental groups could bring a citizen suit under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) against the owner of a ruptured gasoline pipeline where the pipeline had been repaired but the spilled gasoline allegedly continued to travel through groundwater and into nearby surface waters regulated by the CWA as “navigable waters.” Upstate Forever et al. v. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP et al., No. 17-1640, 2018 WL 1748154 (4th Cir. April 12, 2018). In doing so, the Court weighed in on an issue that was of first impression to the Fourth Circuit and has significant implications for CWA liability – whether the discharge of a pollutant that moves through ground water before reaching navigable waters may constitute a discharge of a pollutant pursuant to the CWA. The Court also resolved the preliminary jurisdictional issue by finding that the plaintiffs had adequately alleged an “ongoing violation” as necessary to allege a CWA violation in the district court.   Read More »

Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its highly anticipated opinion in EQT Prod. Co. v. Dep’t of Envtl. Prot., No. 6 MAP 2017, 2018 WL 1516385, (Pa. Mar. 28, 2018), holding that the Clean Streams Law (“CSL”) does not authorize the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) to impose daily penalties for the ongoing, continuing presence of pollutants in waters of the Commonwealth. In the 5-to-2 decision, which affirmed in part the Commonwealth Court’s preceding opinion, the Court ruled that to construe the language of the CSL as allowing penalties for the movement of pollutants from one water body to another (DEP’s “water-to-water” theory) was not only unsupported by the statutory language, but would also expose the regulated community to potentially massive civil penalties, and as such, DEP’s penalty calculations including penalties for the days the pollutants remained in the affected groundwater after the initial discharge were excessive. Read More »