California District Court Rules Against EPA On Claims that It Failed to Timely Act


On March 30, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California decided the case of Californians for Renewable Energy, et al., v. EPA. The plaintiffs, public interest organizations located in several states, filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) complaining that EPA failed to act on anything like a timely basis on their administrative complaints. EPA argued that the case should be dismissed because of (a) improper venue; (b) lack of standing; and (c) mootness. The District Court rejected these arguments, and denied EPA’s motion to dismiss and granted the plaintiffs’ and EPA’s motion for summary judgment, each in part. However, the District Court reserved judgment until the parties had an opportunity to meet and confer on the outstanding issues and then advise the court where things stand.

The plaintiffs filed administrative complaints with EPA in the years 1992 through 2003 alleging that the state permitting decisions under review failed to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in that they allowed the operation of environmentally hazardous facilities in minority communities in California, Texas, New Mexico, Alabama and Michigan. EPA accepted each of the five complaints the plaintiffs submitted, the earliest being accepted in 1995 and the most recent in 2005. Yet, as of July 15, 2015, the date the plaintiffs filed their complaint, the EPA had not issued preliminary findings or otherwise resolved any of the complaints.

EPA regulations implementing Title VI are located at 40 C.F.R. Part 7 and set forth specific deadlines by which EPA must act on Title VI administrative complaints, none of which were adhered to. EPA’s role is very important because Title VI does not create a private right of action, and only EPA can enforce these regulations.

Plaintiffs first through fifth claims sought relief based on EPA’s failure to comply with 40 C.F.R. § 7.115(c), and their sixth claim sought relieve based upon EPA’s alleged engagement in a pattern and practice of withholding and unreadably delaying agency action. During the pendency of this litigation, EPA resolved these complaints, accepting some and denying the others. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs urged the District Court to grant their motion for summary judgment because EPA has had a history of taking a very long time to process environmental justice complaints, and they had every intention of submitting similar complaints in the future.

In its motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, EPA argued that plaintiffs failed to state a claim because they “are barred from judicial review under the [Administrative Procedures Act (APA)] on the ground that ‘they possess adequate alternative remedies for harms alleged in their Title VI complaints” and “there is no mandatory duty for [EPA] to issue preliminary findings in response to a Title VI administrative complaint.” The District Court disagreed, holding that there is “no clear and convincing evidence of legislative intent to create a special, alternative remedies and thereby bar APA review has been presented in this case” and, in addition, “EPA has a mandatory duty to issue preliminary findings within 180 days after accepting a complaint for investigation, and that the EPA failed to comply with that duty.”

Ruling on EPA’s argument that plaintiffs’ claims are moot, the District Court considered whether there is any effective relief it could provide notwithstanding EPA’s resolution of plaintiffs’ Title VI complaints. The District Court found that “effective relief may be afforded in this case in the form of a declaratory judgment” but found that plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief was moot.