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Third Circuit Finds Jurisdiction Over RCRA Claims is Exclusively Federal

On August 6, 2013, a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that the federal district courts hold exclusive jurisdiction over Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) claims. In Litgo New Jersey, Inc. v. Commissioner New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, __ F.3d __ (3d Cir. 2013), the Third Circuit reviewed a District Court’s decision allocating responsibility and clean-up costs for a contaminated site under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the New Jersey Spill Compensation and Control Act (Spill Act), and RCRA. While the court’s discussion of CERCLA and the Spill Act confirmed prior interpretations, the court’s holding concerning the RCRA created new precedent in the Third Circuit.

Under RCRA, a “citizen suit” can be brought against an individual or organization that is contributing or has contributed to the handling or disposing of waste, which “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment.” 42 U.S.C. § 6972(a)(1)(B). RCRA further states that any action against alleged polluters “shall be brought in the district court for the district in which the alleged violation occurred or the alleged endangerment may occur.” 42 U.S.C. § 6972(a) (emphasis added). RCRA also authorizes suits against the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in certain situations. Such an action “may be brought in the district court for the district in which the alleged violation occurred or in the District Court of the District of Columbia.” 42 U.S.C. § 6972(a).

The District Court sitting in the District of New Jersey held that under the New Jersey entire controversy doctrine, which requires that all related claims be brought in a single action, a RCRA claim is barred in federal court when it is not raised in an earlier state court proceeding concerning the subject contamination. On appeal, the Third Circuit disagreed with the District Court’s ruling and held that RCRA granted exclusive jurisdiction to the federal district courts. Thus, the New Jersey entire controversy doctrine does not apply and a RCRA claim can be brought in federal court even if it was omitted in a prior state court case.

In reaching its decision, the Third Circuit looked to the language of the statute and found that, because Congress instructed that claims “shall be brought in the District Court,” the claimants had no choice but to do so. Correspondingly, RCRA claims could not be brought in state court. In the majority opinion, the Court reasoned that the usual presumption in favor of concurrent state court jurisdiction is rebutted when Congress clearly intends for federal courts to have exclusive jurisdiction, as it did in RCRA. The Court distinguished the Supreme Court’s holding in Yellow Freight, in which the court analyzed similar language under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to allow concurrent jurisdiction. See Yellow Freight Systems, Inc. v. Donnelly, 494 U.S. at 820; see also 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3) (“Each United States district court and each United States court of a place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States shall have jurisdiction of actions brought under this subchapter.”). In that instance, the court found that, under Title VII, Congress merely granted authority to federal courts to hear claims and did not oust state courts from hearing claims of this nature. Conversely, under RCRA, Congress vested exclusive authority to hear RCRA to the federal district courts.

The dissenting judges in Litgo argued that the United States Supreme Court has found dual jurisdiction between state and federal courts in RCRA claims and that the majority’s position contravened those prior holdings.

The attorneys at Lieberman & Blecher, P.C., who regularly assist clients with environmental issues that arise in the context of contamination under the Spill Act, CERCLA and RCRA, will be closely following the developments in this area of the law. Our attorneys, who are highly experienced in environmental litigation and remediation issues, have assisted many clients in cases involving RCRA and our attorneys are poised to address the impact of this recent decision in present and future cases.

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