In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law and ushered in the modern era of environmental protection. One of the most important features of the Clean Air Act was a provision that empowers private citizens to file suit in federal court to enforce the Act against corporate polluters, and against the Environmental Protection Agency itself, if they fail to meet the law’s demands.

A citizen suit is a public interest lawsuit, in which private citizens or organizations sue—not to recover money for themselves—but to enforce the requirements of a state or federal environmental law.

For 25 years, since NELC’s inception in 1990, environmental citizen suits have been our primary mission. NELC has brought over 100 enforcement cases on behalf of citizen groups, and secured more than $200 million in court-ordered penalties and pollution reduction measures.

A Citizen Suit Primer

Why did Congress create citizen suits?

Fearing that state and federal government agencies would not fully implement or enforce the nation’s environmental laws, Congress included citizen enforcement provisions to supplement agency efforts and keep regulators honest. In the words of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, “Congress made clear that citizen groups are not to be treated as nuisances or troublemakers but rather as welcomed participants in the vindication of environmental interests.”

How many environmental laws include a citizen suit provision?

Twenty federal environmental laws (including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act) allow for citizen enforcement, while fifteen states have enacted general environmental citizen suit statutes and a small number of states have individual environmental statutes that include a citizen suit provision.

Why are citizen suits important?

Giving citizens the ability to file their own enforcement suits addresses the problem of “regulatory capture”—the situation in which an environmental agency becomes too friendly with the industries it is supposed to regulate—and of under-funded and over-worked regulatory agencies. That citizen suits have expanded the oversight and enforcement of environmental laws and helped protect our air, water, and land is demonstrated by the fact that three out of four judicial opinions in environmental enforcement cases began with citizen suits.

The person or group filing a citizen lawsuit must have a direct stake in the environment problem being addressed. This legal concept is known as “standing to sue.” Citizen plaintiffs, or members of a citizen group, typically must show that they are suffering an actual or threatened injury to their health, recreational or aesthetic interests; that the alleged violator has caused or contributed to their injury; and that a favorable court decision would offer some measure of relief.

Before filing a suit in federal court, potential citizen plaintiffs usually need to provide 60 days notice to the alleged violator (the potential defendant) and to the relevant state and federal agencies, describing the permit requirements or regulations they believe are being violated and details about the dates and locations of the violations. The purpose of the notice requirement is to allow for the prompt resolution of violations without litigation. In most cases, citizens are barred from filing their own suit if the EPA or a state is already diligently prosecuting its own enforcement case.

Citizens “stand in the shoes” of EPA, and thus may seek the same types of relief as the government. This usually includes a formal declaration that the defendant has violated the law; the imposition of civil penalties (which are paid to the government or directed to local environmental mitigation projects); and an injunction (a court order requiring the polluter to cease its violations, or to clean up past environmental damage).