Ninth Circuit Rejects CERCLA UAO Due Process Challenge

Posted on January 6, 2010 by Theodore Garrett

The 9th Circuit affirmed the dismissal, for lack of jurisdiction, over a “pattern and practice” claim by a company that complied with an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unilateral administrative order (UAO) to conduct a remedial investigation. City of Rialto v. W. Coast Loading Corp., 581 F.3d 865 (9th Cir. 2009).  While acknowledging that CERCLA's judicial review provisions contain "some pitfalls and difficult decisions for a PRP that faces a UAO," the court stated that the pattern and practice claim was not an “automatic shortcut” to federal court jurisdiction. 

 

The case arose as a result of a unilateral administrative order (UAO) issued by EPA in July 2003 directing Goodrich to conduct a remedial investigation at a 160-acre site in Rialto, California. Goodrich elected to comply with the order. However, in late 2006 Goodrich filed a complaint against EPA alleging, inter alia, that the CERCLA review provisions on their face constitute a coercive regime violating due process. The district court held that it lacked jurisdiction over Goodrich’s “as-applied” challenge to the UAO because such pre-enforcement judicial review is foreclosed by §9613(h) of CERCLA. Goodrich then filed an amended “pattern and practice” claim alleging that EPA issues orders where no emergency exists, obstructs judicial review by delaying its discretionary certificates of completion, and controls and manipulates the record of decision. The district court granted EPA’s motion to dismiss, and Goodrich appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

 

The Ninth Circuit affirmed. The court of appeals concluded that Goodrich’s allegation that EPA routinely issues orders beyond its statutory authority was substantive because it necessarily depended on the facts of the particular UAO, and that meaningful judicial review of Goodrich’s substantive challenge is available under §9613(h). A claim that a UAO is unlawful can be addressed, the court stated, either by not complying with the UAO and defending an enforcement action, or by complying with a UAO and seeking reimbursement from the government. With respect to Goodrich’s claim that EPA routinely delays certifications of completion in order to thwart judicial review, the Ninth Circuit held that Goodrich’s claim is not ripe because the work required by the UAO has not been completed. Once Goodrich completes the work, it may bring a claim for reimbursement under §9606(b)(2). Finally, with respect to Goodrich’s allegation that EPA controls and manipulates the administrative record supporting the selected cleanup plan, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Goodrich allegations were not a “pattern and practice” claim , but rather were a challenge to the judicial review provisions of the statute itself, which were rejected by the District Court and not appealed by Goodrich. 

 

The Ninth Circuit noted that in General Electric v. Whitman, 360 F.3d 188, 191 (D.C. Cir. 2004), the D.C. Circuit remanded GE’s suit to the district court to address the merits of GE’s facial due process claim, and on remand the district court ruled on merits and rejected GE’s pattern and practice claim. General Electric v. Jackson, 595 F.Supp.2d 8 (D.D.C. 2009). This ruling on the merits contrasts with the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that the district court lacked jurisdiction. The Ninth Circuit, however, commented that its decision was “consistent” with the District Court’s decision in GE, noting that the District Court there held that it had jurisdiction not because of any independent analysis but because of its interpretation of the D.C. Circuit’s decision remanding the case for further proceedings. 

Companies receiving a UAO and facing the statutory pitfalls and difficult decisions will likely not find much solace in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion. The district court’s opinion in the GE case is being appealed.



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