SCOTUS Remands: Miles to Go Before I Sleep?

Posted on October 8, 2019 by Ed Tormey

As attorneys we are fascinated by U.S. Supreme Court cases, the ultimate jurisprudence in our country.  These decisions are analyzed, discussed and debated by legal scholars and practitioners alike.  What is often overlooked is the statement at the end of many of these cases: “we remand the case for further proceedings.”  While we have what we want from the case – Supreme Court precedent – the parties to the case still have a tough row to hoe working back through the federal court system.  It is worth asking what ultimately happened in those cases.  Who won?  After all isn’t the purpose of litigation to pick winners and losers? 

For curiosity’s sake I picked four Supreme Court cases where property owners and the federal government battled over WOTUS wetland jurisdiction issues under the Clean Water Act: Hawkes Co. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 136 S.Ct. 1807 (2016); Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, 566 U.S. 120 (2012); and Rapanos v. United States / Carabell v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  In each of these cases, the property owner was successful in having the federal government’s position remanded back to a lower court for further proceedings.  But did they ultimately win?  

The Hawkes case was brought by three peat mining companies who were seeking approval to discharge material onto wetlands located on property that the miners owned and hoped to mine.  The Supreme Court held that the Army Corps of Engineers’ jurisdictional determination was final agency action judicially reviewable under the federal Administrative Procedure Act.  After the Supreme Court decision, the case was sent back to federal district court for consideration of the Army Corps’ jurisdiction over the wetlands.  The district court held that the Clean Water Act was not applicable to the wetlands in question, and granted summary judgment in favor of the miners.  2017 WL 359170 (D. Minn.). The court went further and enjoined the Army Corps from ever exercising jurisdiction over the land.  So here we have a clear win for the property owners. 

In Sackett, the property owners discharged material into what the EPA claimed to be wetlands.  The EPA issued an administrative order requiring the Sacketts to restore and provide access to the site.  The Sacketts asked the EPA for a hearing, but that request was denied.  The Supreme Court remanded the case back after holding that EPA’s administrative order was effectively a “final agency action” and thus reviewable under the Administrative Procedure Act.  After a significant time gap, the district court granted EPA’s motion for summary judgment finding that the property in question was a WOTUS.  The Sacketts have appealed this decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  For now, we have a clear win for the government. 

The holding of Rapanos/Carabell is well-known for its lack of lack of clarity.  I will not attempt to add any more confusion.  What is pertinent here is that the case was remanded back for further proceedings to determine if two sets of Michigan property developers had WOTUS issues related to their planned development.  The first developer, John Rapanos, had backfilled three wetland areas without a permit.  EPA and Rapanos ultimately entered into a consent decree whereby Rapanos did not confirm or deny any violation of law but nevertheless agreed to pay a fine of $150,000.  In addition, Rapanos agreed to construct 100 acres of wetlands to mitigate the 54 acres he had backfilled.  Finally, Rapanos agreed to designate 134.60 acres of land as conservation areas protected under conservation easements.  As a settlement, neither side walked away with everything they wanted.  But I would imagine that the government is chalking this up as a win.

June and Keith Carabell were also litigants against the federal government after the Army Corps denied their request for a permit to develop a wetland adjacent to a drainage ditch.  After remand by the Supreme Court, it appears that the Carabells have not had any further conflict with the Army Corps and the court has closed the case.  But it does appear that the property owners may still want to develop the land.

There you have it.  Four cases with only one clear cut victory for property owners, despite promising holdings from the Supreme Court.  And in most of these cases, the Supreme Court’s involvement in the matter was far from the end of the litigation.  For example, in Carabell the matter is still outstanding thirteen years later.  In Sackett, it’s been seven years since the Supreme Court decision and the parties are still litigating this matter. In Rapanos, it took three years for the parties to settle the matter after the decision. 

So while we enjoy reading a SCOTUS opinion, we should remember that the parties’ involvement in that case is often far from over and far from a clear victory or defeat. 



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