CTS Corp. v. Waldburger

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation573 U.S. 1,134 S.Ct. 2175,189 L.Ed.2d 62
Docket NumberNo. 13–339.,13–339.
Parties CTS CORPORATION, Petitioner v. Peter WALDBURGER et al.
Decision Date09 June 2014

573 U.S. 1
134 S.Ct. 2175
189 L.Ed.2d 62

Peter WALDBURGER et al.

No. 13–339.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued April 23, 2014.
Decided June 9, 2014.

Brian J. Murray, Chicago, IL, for Petitioner.

Joseph R. Palmore, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the petitioner.

134 S.Ct. 2180

John J. Korzen, Winston–Salem, NC, for Respondents.

E. Thomison Holman, Adams Hendon Carson, Crow & Saenger, P.A., Asheville, NC, Richard M. Re, Jones Day, Washington, DC, Brian J. Murray, Counsel of Record, Michael F. Dolan, Dennis Murashko, Jones Day, Chicago, IL, for Petitioner.

Allison M. Zieve, Public Citizen Litigation Group, Washington, DC, John J. Korzen, Counsel of Record, Wake Forest University School of Law, Appellate Advocacy Clinic, Winston–Salem, NC, for Respondents.

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II–D.

573 U.S. 3

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.

573 U.S. 4

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 (C.A.2 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

573 U.S. 5

"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

573 U.S. 6

this suit alleging damage from contaminants on the land. Those who alleged the injury and damage were the plaintiffs in the trial court and are respondents here.

Their suit was brought in 2011, 24 years after CTS sold the property. The suit, filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, was a state-law nuisance action against CTS, petitioner here. Respondents sought "reclamation" of "toxic chemical contaminants" belonging to petitioner, "remediation of the environmental harm caused" by contaminants, and "monetary damages in an amount that will fully compensate them for all the losses and damages they have suffered, ... and will suffer in the future." App. to Pet. for Cert. 57a. Respondents claim that in 2009 they learned from the Environmental Protection Agency that their well water was contaminated, allegedly while petitioner operated its electronics plant.

Citing North Carolina's statute of repose, CTS moved to dismiss the claim. That statute prevents subjecting a defendant to a tort suit brought more than 10 years after the last culpable act of the defendant. N.C. Gen.Stat. Ann. § 1–52(16) (Lexis 2013) ("[N]o cause of action shall accrue more than 10 years from the last act or omission of the defendant giving rise to the cause of action"); Robinson v. Wadford, ––– N.C.App. ––––, ––––, 731 S.E.2d 539, 541 (2012) (referring to the provision as a "statute of repose"). Because CTS' last act occurred in 1987, when it sold the electronics plant, the District Court accepted the recommendation of a Magistrate Judge and granted CTS' motion to dismiss.

A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, ruling that § 9658 pre-empted the statute of repose. 723 F.3d 434 (2013). The majority found § 9658 "ambiguous," but also found that the interpretation in favor of pre-

134 S.Ct. 2182

emption was preferable because of CERCLA's remedial purpose. Id., at 443–444.

Judge Thacker dissented. Id., at 445–454. She found the statutory text's exclusion of statutes of repose to be "plain

573 U.S. 7

and unambiguous." Id., at 445. She further indicated that, even "if the preemptive effect of § 9658 were susceptible to two interpretations, a presumption against preemption would counsel that we should limit § 9658's preemptive reach to statutes of limitations without also extending it to statutes of repose." Ibid.

The Courts of Appeals, as well as the Supreme Court of South Dakota, have rendered conflicting judgments on this question. Compare Burlington N. & S.F.R. Co. v. Poole Chemical Co., 419 F.3d 355, 362 (C.A.5 2005), and Clark County v. Sioux Equipment Corp., 2008 S.D. 60, ¶¶ 27–29, 753 N.W.2d 406, 417, with McDonald v. Sun Oil Co., 548 F.3d 774, 779 (C.A.9 2008). This Court granted certiorari. 571 U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 896, 187 L.Ed.2d 702 (2014).



The outcome of the case turns on whether § 9658 makes a distinction between state-enacted statutes of limitations and statutes of repose. Statutes of limitations and statutes of repose both are mechanisms used to limit the temporal extent or duration of liability for tortious acts. Both types of statute can operate to bar a plaintiff's suit, and in each instance time is the controlling factor. There is considerable common ground in the policies underlying the two types of statute. But the time periods specified are measured from different points, and the statutes seek to attain different purposes and objectives. And, as will be explained, § 9658 mandates a distinction between the two.

In the ordinary course, a statute of limitations creates "a time limit...

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