New Orleans, LA – In 2010, after years of complaints from its members regarding the deplorable quality of the wastewater discharged by the sewage treatment system operated by the City of Baton Rouge, the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) filed suit against the city under the Clean Water Act. However, rather than evaluating the merits of LEAN’s claims, the United States District Court simply dismissed the case. The court’s rationale for doing so caught NELC’s attention.
More than 20 years earlier, in 1988, the federal government had filed its own Clean Water Act suit against the city for the same set of conditions. Thereafter, the government entered into various settlement agreements with the city, but the pollution, and the Clean Water Act violations, continued apace. Indeed, one of the allegations of LEAN’s 2010 lawsuit was that the city was woefully out of compliance, even with the terms of its federal agreements. Nonetheless, the district court ruled that the existence of the prior government action rendered LEAN’s lawsuit “moot”—that it must be dismissed because there was no “case or controversy” that the court could resolve.
“Such logic,” noted NELC Litigation Director Charles Caldart, “would allow federal courts to dismiss citizen enforcement suits where they are needed the most: when government action has been unable to bring unlawful pollution to a halt.” Thus, when LEAN filed an appeal, Caldart and NELC Staff Attorney Joseph Mann filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief on LEAN’s behalf.
In April, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans issued an opinion reversing the district court and reinstating LEAN’s lawsuit against the city. Specifically adopting the position laid out in NELC’s brief, the Fifth Circuit ruled that, as a matter of federal constitutional law, events happening before a federal lawsuit is filed (such as the federal agreements here) can never make the lawsuit moot.
“This should help level the playing field for citizen suit plaintiffs through- out the country,” noted NELC’s Joseph Mann.