Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Environmental Services
528 U.S. 167 (2000)

  • Laidlaw bought a water treatment plant. Pursuant to the Clean Water Act, they applied for and received a National Pollution Discharge Elimination (NPDES) permit to dump treated wastewater into the North Tyger River.
    • They then began dumping wastewater that exceeded their permit limits for toxic pollutants.
  • Friends of the Earth (FOE) filed an intention to sue.
    • Under Article III of the Clean Water Act, if the government (in this case the South Carolina Dept. of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC)) has failed to ensure compliance, a private citizen group could sue for violations of the Act, but only after giving 60 days notice (see 33 U.S.C. 1365(a)).
  • 59-days later, Laidlaw and DHEC came to an agreement where Laidlaw would pay a $100k fine and make 'every effort' to comply with the permit.
  • FOE sued anyway, alleging that Laidlaw was still not in compliance with their permit.
  • Laidlaw moved for summary judgment on the grounds that FOE lacked standing to sue.
    • Laidlaw argued that the citizen suit was barred by 1365(b)(1)(B) because they had reached an agreement with DHEC.
    • In order to have Article III standing to bring a lawsuit, you must show injury in fact, causation, and redressability. (See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (504 U.S. 555 (1982)).
  • The Trial Court found that FOE had standing.
    • The Trial Court noted that in the 6 months between the time that FOE filed suit and the time of judgment, Laidlaw had violated their permit more 23 times!
  • The Trial Court found for FOE and fined Laidlaw $405k. FOE appealed.
    • FOE appealed because they wanted the fine to be higher. They did not appeal the judgment.
  • The Appellate Court reversed the judgment. FOE appealed.
    • The Appellate Court assumed that FOE had standing to sue.
    • However, the Appellate Court found that the lawsuit became moot once Laidlaw and DHEC came to an agreement.
      • The Court found that the remedy FOE was seeking, monetary damages paid to the government, would not redress any injury that FOE had suffered.
  • The US Supreme Court found for FOE.
    • The US Supreme Court found that a citizen suitor's claim for civil penalties is not to be dismissed as moot when the defendant after commencement of the litigation, has come into compliance with the NPDES permit.
      • "A defendant's voluntary cessation of allegedly unlawful conduct ordinarily does not suffice to moot a case."
    • The Court found that FOE still had standing to due because even though Laidlaw had reached an agreement with DHEC, the river was still polluted. They had alleged that they could not swim in the river because of pollution, so the injury in fact was still present.
      • The injury in fact was a lessening of aesthetic recreational value of the area. That is sort of general. FOE did not prove particular injury to a particular person, which is the normal standard, but the Court let it go.
        • See Lujan.
    • Laidlaw unsuccessfully argued that the case was moot because they had closed the wastewater treatment plant and were no longer polluting. However, the Court found that Laidlaw still owned the license and therefore could reopen the plant at any time.
      • In addition, if not deterred by a big fine, Laidlaw would be tempted to open similar plants elsewhere.
    • The Court found that a civil penalty could be enforced against an entity even though the interests protected were private.
      • The Court found that civil penalties for Clean Water Act violations "do more than promote immediate compliance by limiting the defendant's economic incentive to delay its attainment of permit limits; they also deter future violations."
  • In a dissent it was argued that FOE claim was for a private wrong (they couldn't swim in the river), but that the only remedy available was a public remedy (a fine payable to the government). Since FOE could not get the money for the fine, and had already received injunctive relief (Laidlaw promised to come into compliance with their permit), FOE should not have had standing under Article III.
    • Marrying a private wrong with a public remedy "violates traditional principles of Federal standing, thereby permitting law enforcement to be placed in the hands of private individuals."