__ U.S. __ (2014), 13-339, CTS Corp. v. Waldburger

Docket Nº:13-339
Citation:__ U.S. __, 134 S.Ct. 2175, 189 L.Ed.2d 62, 82 U.S.L.W. 4443
Judge Panel:KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II-D. SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined that opinion in full, and ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined as to all but Part II-D. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, ...
Case Date:June 09, 2014
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page __

__ U.S. __ (2014)

134 S.Ct. 2175, 189 L.Ed.2d 62, 82 U.S.L.W. 4443




No. 13-339

United States Supreme Court

June 9, 2014

Argued April 23, 2014.




[134 S.Ct. 2178] Federal law pre-empts state-law statutes of limitations in certain tort actions involving personal injury or property damage arising from the release of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant into the environment. 42 U.S.C. § 9658. Petitioner CTS Corporation sold property on which it had stored chemicals as part its operations as an electronics plant. Twenty-four years later, respondents, the owners of portions of that property and adjacent landowners, sued, alleging damages from the stored contaminants. CTS moved to dismiss, citing a state statute of repose that prevented subjecting a defendant to a tort suit brought more than 10 years after the defendant's last culpable act. Because CTS's last act occurred when it sold the property, the District Court granted the motion. Finding § 9658 ambiguous, the Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the statute's remedial purpose favored pre-emption.

Held : The judgment is reversed.

723 F.3d 434, reversed.

JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to all but Part II-D, concluding that § 9658 does not pre-empt state statutes of repose. Pp. 5-16.

(a) The outcome here turns on whether § 9658 distinguishes between statutes of limitations and statutes of repose, which are both used to limit the temporal extent or duration of tort liability. There is considerable common ground in the policies underlying the two, but their specified time periods are measured differently and they seek to attain different purposes and objectives. Statutes of limitations are designed to promote justice by encouraging [134 S.Ct. 2179] plaintiffs to pursue claims diligently and begin to run when a claim accrues. Statutes of repose effect a legislative judgment that a defendant should be free from liability after a legislatively determined amount of time and are measured from the date of the defendant's last culpable act or omission. The application of equitable tolling underscores their difference in purpose. Because a statute of limitations' purpose is not furthered by barring an untimely action brought by a plaintiff who was prevented by extraordinary circumstances from timely filing, equitable tolling operates to pause the running of the statute. The purpose of statutes of repose are unaffected by such circumstances, and equitable tolling does not apply. Pp. 5-8.

(b) The text and structure of § 9658 resolve this case. Under that provision, pre-emption is characterized as an " [e]xception," § 9658(a)(1), to the regular rule that the " the statute of limitations established under State law" applies. The " applicable limitations period," the " commencement date" of which is subject to pre-emption, is defined as " the period specified in a statute of limitations." § 9658(b)(2). That term appears four times, and " statute of repose" does not appear at all. While it is apparent from the historical development of the two terms that their general usage has not always been precise, their distinction was well enough established to be reflected in the 1982 Study Group Report that guided § 9658's enactment, acknowledged the distinction, and urged the repeal of both types of statutes. Because that distinction is not similarly reflected in § 9658, it is proper to conclude that Congress did not intend to pre-empt statutes of repose.

Other textual features further support this conclusion. It would be awkward to use the singular " applicable limitations period" to mandate pre-emption of two different time periods with two different purposes. And the definition of that limitations period as " the period" during which a " civil action" under state law " may be brought," § 9658(b)(2), presupposes that a civil action exists. A statute of repose, in contrast, can prohibit a cause of action from ever coming into existence. Section 9658's inclusion of a tolling rule also suggests that the statute's reach is limited to statutes of limitations, which traditionally have been subject to tolling. Respondents contend that § 9658 also effects an implied pre-emption because statutes of repose create an obstacle to Congress' purposes and objectives, see Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555, 563-564, 129 S.Ct. 1187, 173 L.Ed.2d 51. But the level of generality at which the statute's purpose is framed affects whether a specific reading will further or hinder that purpose. Here, where Congress chose to leave many areas of state law untouched, respondents have not shown that statutes of repose pose an unacceptable obstacle to the attainment of statutory purposes. Pp. 8-16.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II-D. SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined that opinion in full, and ROBERTS, C. J., and SCALIA, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined as to all but Part II-D. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS and ALITO, JJ., joined. GINSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BREYER, J., joined.


[134 S.Ct. 2180] KENNEDY, JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II-D.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), 94 Stat. 2767, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 9601 et seq., contains a provision that by its terms pre-empts statutes of limitations applicable to state-law tort actions in certain circumstances. § 9658. Section 9658 applies to statutes of limitations governing actions for personal injury or property damage arising from the release of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant into the environment.

Section 9658 adopts what is known as the discovery rule. Under this framework, statutes of limitations in covered actions begin to run when a plaintiff discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, that the harm in question was caused by the contaminant. A person who is exposed to a toxic contaminant may not develop or show signs of resulting injury for many years, and so Congress enacted § 9658 out of concern for long latency periods.

It is undoubted that the discovery rule in § 9658 pre-empts state statutes of limitations that are in conflict with its terms. The question presented in this case is whether § 9658 also pre-empts state statutes of repose.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that § 9658 does pre-empt statutes of repose. That holding was in error, and, for the reasons that follow, the judgment of the Court of Appeals must be reversed.


Congress enacted CERCLA in 1980 " to promote '" the timely cleanup of hazardous waste sites" ' and to ensure that the costs of such cleanup efforts were borne by those responsible for the contamination." Burlington N. & S. F. R. Co. v. United States, 556 U.S. 599, 602, 129 S.Ct. 1870, 173 L.Ed.2d 812 (2009) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. of New York v. UGI Utilities, Inc., 423 F.3d 90, 94 (CA2 2005)). The Act provided a federal cause of action to recover costs of cleanup from culpable entities but not a federal cause of action for personal injury or property damage. Instead, CERCLA directed preparation of an expert report to determine " the adequacy of existing common law and statutory remedies in providing legal redress for harm to man and the environment caused by the release of hazardous substances into the environment," including " barriers to recovery posed by existing statutes of limitations." 42 U.S.C. § 9651(e)(1), (3)(F).

The 1982 report resulting from that statutory directive proposed certain changes to state tort law. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Superfund Section 301(e) Study Group, Injuries and Damages from Hazardous Wastes-- [134 S.Ct. 2181] Analysis and Improvement of Legal Remedies, 97th Cong., 2d Sess. (Comm. Print 1982) (hereinafter Study Group Report or Report). As relevant here, the Study Group Report noted the long latency periods involved in harm caused by toxic substances and " recommend[ed] that all states that have not already done so, clearly adopt the rule that an action accrues when the plaintiff discovers or should have discovered the injury or disease and its cause." Id., at pt. 1, 256. The Report further stated: " The Recommendation is intended also to cover the repeal of the statutes of repose which, in a number of states[,] have the same effect as some statutes of limitation in barring [a] plaintiff's claim before he knows that he has one." Ibid.

Congress did not wait long for States to respond to some or all of the Report's recommendations. Instead, Congress decided to act at the federal level. Congress amended CERCLA in 1986 to add the provision now codified in § 9658. Whether § 9658 repeals statutes of repose, as the Study Group Report recommended, is the question to be addressed here.

The instant case arose in North Carolina, where CTS Corporation ran an electronics plant in Asheville from 1959 to 1985. (A subsidiary, CTS of Asheville, Inc., ran the plant until 1983, when CTS Corporation took over.) The plant manufactured and disposed of electronics and electronic parts. In the process, it stored the chemicals trichloroethylene (TCE) and cis-1, 2-dichloroethane (DCE). In 1987, CTS sold the property, along with a promise that the site was environmentally sound. The buyer eventually sold portions of the property to individuals who, along with adjacent landowners, brought this suit alleging...

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