481 U.S. 412 (1987), 85-1259, Tull v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 85-1259
Citation:481 U.S. 412, 107 S.Ct. 1831, 95 L.Ed.2d 365, 55 U.S.L.W. 4571
Party Name:Tull v. United States
Case Date:April 28, 1987
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 412

481 U.S. 412 (1987)

107 S.Ct. 1831, 95 L.Ed.2d 365, 55 U.S.L.W. 4571



United States

No. 85-1259

United States Supreme Court

April 28, 1987

Argued January 21, 1987




The Clean Water Act (Act) authorizes injunctive relief against violators (33 U.S.C. § 1319(b)) and subjects them to a civil penalty not to exceed $10,000 per day (§ 1319(d)). After denying petitioner's timely demand for a jury trial in the Government's suit for relief under §§ 1319(b) and 1319(d), the District Court imposed civil penalties and granted injunctive relief against petitioner. The Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting petitioner's argument that the Seventh Amendment entitled him to a jury trial on the civil penalties claim. The court held, inter alia, that the District Court had exercised statutorily conferred equitable power in assessing monetary penalties.


1. The Seventh Amendment guarantees a jury trial to determine liability in actions by the Government seeking civil penalties and injunctive relief under the Act. An examination of the nature of such actions and of the remedies sought demonstrates that they are more analogous to "Suits at common law" within the meaning of the Amendment than they are to cases traditionally tried in courts of equity. Pp. 417-425.

(a) A Government suit under § 1319(d) is analogous to an action in debt within the jurisdiction of English courts of law prior to the Seventh Amendment's enactment, and therefore should be tried by a jury. The Government's argument that the action is more analogous to an action by the English sovereign to abate a public nuisance is debatable, but irrelevant for Seventh Amendment purposes, since that Amendment requires trial by jury in actions unheard of at common law. Both a public nuisance action and an action in debt could be asserted by the sovereign to seek relief for an injury to the public in numerous contexts. The conclusion that both are appropriate analogies to a § 1319(d) [107 S.Ct. 1833] action is sufficient here, particularly in light of the Court's characterization of the relief sought infra. Pp. 418-421.

(b) Unlike public nuisance actions which relied on the injunctive relief provided by equity courts, the text and legislative history of § 1319(d) demonstrate that suits thereunder are intended to punish culpable individuals, and thus yield a type of remedy that at common law could only be enforced in a court of law. The contention that a § 1319(d) suit is similar to an equitable action for disgorgement of profits is not persuasive, since the latter is a remedy only for restitution, a more limited

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form of relief than a civil penalty. The Government's contention that its § 1319(b) injunction action provides jurisdiction for incidental monetary relief without the necessity of a jury trial also fails, since equity courts may not enforce civil penalties, and the Government knew when it filed suit that relief would be limited primarily to civil penalties, because petitioner had already sold most of the property at issue. The potential penalty of $23 million could hardly be considered "incidental" to the modest equitable relief sought. Moreover, the Government was free to pursue its § 1319(b) claim independent of its § 1319(d) claim. By choosing to combine them, it preserved petitioner's right to a jury trial on the legal claim and all issues common to both claims, and cannot abridge that right by characterizing the legal claim as "incidental." Pp. 422-425.

2. The Seventh Amendment does not guarantee a jury trial to assess civil penalties under the Act. The fact that trial judges assess those penalties does not violate the Amendment, since assessment cannot be Said to involve the substance of a common law right to, nor a fundamental element of, a jury trial, as is necessary to implicate the Amendment. Congress has an unquestioned right to fix civil penalties, and may delegate that right to trial judges, particularly where, as here, highly discretionary calculations that take into account multiple factors are necessary. Pp. 425-427.

769 F.2d 182, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, and in Parts I and II of which STEVENS and SCALIA, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 427.

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BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question for decision is whether the Seventh Amendment guaranteed petitioner a right to a jury trial on both liability and amount of penalty in an action instituted by the Federal Government seeking civil penalties and injunctive relief under the Clean Water Act, 62 Stat. 1155, as amended, 33 U.S.C. § 1251 et seq.


The Clean Water Act prohibits discharging, without a permit, dredged or fill material into "navigable waters," including the wetlands adjacent to the waters. 33 U.S.C. §§ 1311, 1344, and 1362(7); 33 CFR §§ 323.2(a)(1) (7) (1986). "Wetlands" are "swamps, marshes, bogs and similar areas." 33 CFR § 323.2(c) (1986). The Government sued petitioner, a real estate developer, for dumping fill on wetlands on the island of Chincoteague, Virginia. The Government alleged in the original complaint that petitioner dumped fill on three sites: Ocean Breeze Mobile Homes Sites, Mire Pond Properties, and Eel Creek. The Government later amended the complaint to allege that petitioner also placed fill in a [107 S.Ct. 1834] man-made waterway, named Fowling Gut Extended, on the Ocean Breeze property.1

Section 1319 enumerates the remedies available under the Clean Water Act. Subsection (b) authorizes relief in the form of temporary or permanent injunctions. Subsection (d) provides that violators of certain sections of the Act "shall be subject to a civil penalty not to exceed $10,000 per day" during the period of the violation. The Government sought in

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this case both injunctive relief and civil penalties. When the complaint was filed, however, almost all of the property at issue had been sold by petitioner to third parties. Injunctive relief was therefore impractical except with regard to a small portion of the land.2 App. 110, 119. The Government's complaint demanded the imposition of the maximum civil penalty of $22,890,000 under subsection (d). App. 31-34.

Petitioner's timely demand for a trial by jury was denied by the District Court. During the 15-day bench trial, petitioner did not dispute that he had placed fill at the locations alleged, and did not deny his failure to obtain a permit. Petitioner contended, however, that the property in question did not constitute "wetlands." 615 F.Supp. 610, 615-618 (ED Va.1983). The Government concedes that triable issues of fact were presented by disputes between experts involving the composition and nature of the fillings. Tr. of Oral Arg. 44.

The District Court concluded that petitioner had illegally filled in wetland areas on all properties in question, but drastically reduced the amount of civil penalties sought by the Government. With respect to the Ocean Breeze Mobile Homes Sites, the court imposed a civil fine of $35,000, noting that petitioner had sold seven lots at a profit of $5,000 per lot. 615 F.Supp. at 626. The court fined petitioner another $35,000 for illegal fillings on the Mire Pond Properties, ibid., and $5,000 for filling that affected a single lot in Eel Creek, ibid., although petitioner had realized no profit from fining in these properties. In addition, the court imposed on petitioner a $250,000 fine, to be suspended, however, "on the specific condition that he restore the extension of Fowling Gut to its former navigable condition. . . ." Id. at 627. Although petitioner argued that such restoration required purchasing

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the land from third parties at a cost of over $700,000, thus leaving him no choice but to pay the fine, the court refused to alter this order. App. 107a-108a. The court also granted separate injunctive relief: it ordered the restoration of wetlands on the portions of Mire Pond and Eel Creek still owned by petitioner, 615 F.Supp. at 627, and further ordered the removal of fillings on five lots of the Ocean Breeze Mobile Home Sites unless petitioner were granted an "after-the-fact permit" validating the fillings. Id. at 626.

The Court of Appeals affirmed over a dissent, rejecting petitioner's argument that, under the Seventh Amendment, he was entitled to a jury trial. 769 F.2d 182 (CA4 1985). The court expressly declined to follow the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in United States v. J. B. Williams Co., 498 F.2d 414 (1974), which held that there was a Seventh Amendment

"right of jury trial when the United States sues . . . to collect a [statutory civil] penalty, even though the statute is silent on the right of jury trial."

498 F.2d at 422-423 (quoting 5 J. Moore, Federal Practice ¶ 38.-31[1], pp. 232-233 (2d ed.1971)). The Court of Appeals in this [107 S.Ct. 1835] case also found unpersuasive the dictum in Hepner v. United States, 213 U.S. 103, 115 (1909), and in United States v. Regan, 232 U.S. 37, 46-47 (1914), that the Seventh Amendment's guarantee applies to civil actions to collect a civil penalty. The court concluded that, while in Hepner and Regan the civil penalties were statutorily prescribed fixed amounts, the District Court in the present case exercised "statutorily conferred equitable power in determining the amount of the fine." 769 F.2d at 187. The Court of Appeals also noted that the District Court fashioned a "`package' of remedies" containing both equitable and legal relief with "one part of the package affecting assessment of the others." Ibid.

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