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Federal District in Court in Michigan Reaffirms the Comprehensive Scope of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Protecting Public Water Systems

The drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan has led to a series of lawsuits brought on behalf of Flint residents. In two similar circumstances, and most recently on February 2 of this year in the case of Mays v. Snyder, No. 15-14002 (E.D. Mich. Feb. 2, 2017), the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan granted motions to dismiss complaints that alleged that state officials had violated residents’ constitutional rights by exposing them to contaminated water.  In both instances, the court held that the residents’ constitutional claims were precluded by the Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”).  

In Boler v. Earley, No. 16-10323 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 19, 2016), which we reported on here, the plaintiffs represented a class of Flint residents and businesses that had purportedly purchased contaminated Flint water.  The plaintiffs’ complaint brought various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”) and other state law claims against the defendants, the City of Flint, the State of Michigan, and various government officials and entities, for allegedly impairing their constitutional and state contract rights to “safe and potable water.”  The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis that the plaintiffs’ federal claims brought under § 1983 were precluded by the SDWA, and therefore, the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the plaintiffs’ state claims.

The court granted the motion to dismiss and dismissed the complaint in its entirety. The court explained that when a federal statute affords comprehensive remedial devices, it evidences congressional intent to preclude remedies under § 1983.  In evaluating whether the SDWA was such a statute, the court relied on the fact that the SDWA was intended to “occup[y] the field of public drinking water regulation.”  Accordingly, in the court’s analysis, the SDWA included an “elaborate enforcement scheme” that permitted either the EPA Administrator or citizens to initiate enforcement proceedings against SDWA violators.  Therefore, the court concluded that the plaintiffs’ federal remedy for causes of action relating to safe drinking water is under the SDWA, not § 1983, even though the plaintiffs’ characterized as their claims as only “tangentially related to safe drinking water.”  Because the plaintiffs failed to assert a claim under the SDWA and their federal § 1983 claims were precluded, the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the remaining state law claims.

Similarly, in Mays, the court again considered whether a complaint that alleged constitutional claims arising from the Flint water crisis could state a claim without a cause of action under the SDWA.  There, the plaintiffs represented a putative class of residents who had used Flint water, as opposed to the plaintiffs in Boler who had purchased Flint water.  The plaintiffs brought constitutional claims under § 1983 and state claims against Flint public officials for causing “a public health crisis” that exposed plaintiffs to “contaminated water.”

The minor differences in how the plaintiffs pled their § 1983 claims did not alter the court’s analysis in holding that the claims were precluded by the SDWA. “Regardless of how [plaintiffs’] legal theories are characterized in the complaint,” the court explained, the “essence of [p]laintiffs’ constitutional claims is that [they] were injured as a result of exposure to contaminated water.”  The court, relying on Boler, reiterated the notion that the “safety of public water systems is a field occupied by the SDWA.”  Consequently, plaintiffs’ § 1983 claims were dismissed, and the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the remaining state law claims.

As the public’s awareness regarding potential lead contamination continues to grow in the wake of the Flint crisis, Boler and Mays stand as helpful reminders of the comprehensive federal regulatory regime under the SDWA already in place for dealing with such contingencies.