Opinion Update: Environmental Litigation and Statutes of Limitation

In two recent decisions, the Court has delved into procedural issues with significant impact on the course of actual litigation. In  Artis v. District of Columbia, the issue was what happens to the statute of limitations for state law claims when a plaintiff brings both those claims and federal claims in federal court, but the federal claims are dismissed. The case involved a former code inspector (Artis) for the District of Columbia Department of Health. Artis alleged workplace discrimination and sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Washington D.C.’s Whistleblower Act, False Claims Act, and common law. The plaintiff’s Title VII claim was eventually dismissed, and the district court decided that there was no basis to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over her other claims. She then refiled her state law claims in a D.C. trial court. The trial court determined that her claims were time barred under the statute of limitations and held that the federal supplemental jurisdiction statute “does not suspend state statute of limitations at the time of the unsuccessful federal filing.”

Robert Yablon of SCOTUSblog provided an analysis of Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion in this 5-4 decision interpreting 28 U.S.C. §1367(d), the statute that provides for supplemental jurisdiction over state claims in federal court and which includes a “tolling” provision. The Court held that the meaning of “toll” is to suspend the statute of limitations or “hold it in abeyance.” In dissent, on behalf of himself and Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Thomas, Justice Gorsuch argued that “toll” is a broad term that means to suspend a statute of limitations and also to “remove the effect of an expired limitations period.” In this case, Gorsuch stated the tolling provision in the statute means nothing more than to give the plaintiff a 30 day grace period to refile after the federal dismissal. Gorsuch also wrote that the majority’s opinion infringes upon state’s federalism rights to determine how state law claims should be litigated. As Yablon pointed out, this could signal a new federalism battleground for the Court.

Sarah Wieselthier of Lexology explains what this decision means for employees: “[b]y holding that Artis could proceed with her state law claims, the Court effectively extended the statute of limitations applicable to those claims.”

In  National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense,  announced the same day as Artis, the justices decided that challengers of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule must file their suits in district courts, not appellate courts.  The rule at issue was crafted by the Obama administration and, as the New York Times explained, it “limited the use of pollutants like chemical fertilizers that could run off into small streams.”

The Hill reports that “[w]hile some environmentalists are hopeful the Supreme Court ruling will leave open the door for the Clean Water rule to be put into effect while the court cases are carried out, the Trump administration has now suspended the implementation of the rule. Nonetheless, the National Law Review predicts that “[w]e will certainly be in a mess for some time while his all plays out.”

In its opinion, the Court found unpersuasive the government’s statutory arguments that the rule falls into two of the seven categories for which the Clean Water Act says review lies directly and exclusively in the federal appellate courts. The government also made three policy arguments that the Court likewise rejected. The Court ruled that because Congressional intent was clear, it could accept the bifurcated judicial review scheme in which federal courts of appeal review individual actions issuing or denying permits, and district courts review broader regulations. The Court was also able to accept the lack of efficiency resulting from a lack of immediate court-of-appeals review. And despite the government’s argument that appellate review might result in fewer conflicts in the outcomes of cases, the Court found that, “even if Congress sought to ensure national uniformity, it did not pursue that end at all costs.”

This post was written by Bridget Flynn and Matthew Webber, ISCOTUS Fellows and Chicago-Kent College of Law Class of 2019, and edited by Anna Jirschele, ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator and Chicago-Kent Class of 2018, and by Carolyn Shapiro, Chicago-Kent Faculty Member and ISCOTUS Co-Director.

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