General Motors Corp. v. Ruckelshaus

Decision Date16 December 1983
Docket Number80-2027,81-1029,Nos. 80-1868,s. 80-1868
Citation724 F.2d 979
Parties, 233 U.S.App.D.C. 95, 14 Envtl. L. Rep. 20,110 GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, a Delaware Corporation, Petitioner, v. William D. RUCKELSHAUS, Administrator, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Respondent. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, a Delaware Corporation, Petitioner, v. William D. RUCKELSHAUS, Administrator, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Respondent. GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, a Delaware Corporation, Petitioner, v. William D. RUCKELSHAUS, Administrator, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Respondent.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit

George F. Ball and Theodore Souris, Detroit, Mich., with whom William L. Weber, Jr., Michael B. Lewiston, James A. Smith, Terrence B. Larkin, and Frederick J. Dindoffer, Detroit, Mich., were on brief, for petitioner.

Samuel I. Gutter, Atty., E.P.A., Washington, D.C., with whom Angus MacBeth, Acting Asst. Atty. Gen., Gerald K. Gleason, Asst. Gen. Counsel, Robert A. Weissman, Atty., Environmental Protection Agency, Donald W. Stever, Jr., and Rosanne Mayer, Attys., Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C., were on brief, for respondent.

Before WILKEY and WALD, Circuit Judges, and BAZELON, Senior Circuit Judge.

Opinion for the Court filed by Senior Circuit Judge BAZELON.

Concurring opinion filed by Circuit Judge WILKEY.

Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge WALD.

BAZELON, Senior Circuit Judge:

Petitioner General Motors Corporation (GM) brings three consolidated petitions for review of final actions of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act, as amended. 1 In these petitions we are asked to decide whether the recall provision of section 207(c)(1) of the Act 2 permits the EPA to require automobile manufacturers to recall and repair at their own expense all members of a class of vehicles--a substantial number of which have been found to be in nonconformity with applicable emissions standards during their useful lives--regardless of the age or mileage of any individual vehicle when presented for repair. We take jurisdiction under section 307(b)(1) of the Act. 3 For reasons detailed below, we reverse the actions of the Administrator.

BACKGROUND

Through the Clean Air Act, Congress sought "to protect and enhance the quality of the Nation's air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population ...." 4 To this end, Title II of the Act 5 establishes a comprehensive program for the control of motor vehicle emissions. The Act authorizes the Administrator to prescribe standards for motor vehicle emissions within the broad guidelines set out by the statute. 6 Such standards are applicable to the vehicles throughout their "useful lives." 7 The useful life of light duty vehicles, such as automobiles, is defined by statute as "a period of use of five years or fifty thousand miles (or the equivalent), whichever first occurs ...." 8

The Act also provides an elaborate enforcement system designed to ensure that vehicles comply with emissions standards, not only when they leave the assembly line but also while in actual use. 9 Among the enforcement mechanisms at the disposal of the EPA is the authority to order manufacturers to recall and repair at their own expense an entire class or model of vehicles or engines should the Administrator determine that a substantial number of vehicles in that class, although properly used and maintained, have failed to meet applicable emissions standards during their useful lives. 10 The precise scope and application of this recall authority are at issue in this lawsuit.

In May 1975, the EPA began an investigation 11 of the emissions performance of 1975 Cadillacs of the 60V43 engine family. 12 On March 21, 1977, following a program of testing fifteen sample vehicles by both EPA and GM, the Administrator officially notified GM that he had determined that a substantial number of 1975 Cadillacs equipped with the 230-carburetor, although properly maintained and used, failed to meet federal emissions standards during their useful lives. 13 The Administrator ordered GM to submit a plan for the recall and repair of the 230-carburetor class. 14 He also indicated that the EPA staff would continue its investigation of emissions problems in 193-carburetor Cadillacs and urged GM to recall these vehicles voluntarily. 15

GM did not contest the finding of nonconformity and "volunteered" to recall the 193-carburetor vehicles. 16 Nevertheless, negotiations concerning GM's proposed remedial plan 17 dragged on from May 1977 until December 1979. 18 Finally, on December 26 1979, EPA withdrew one of its principal objections and agreed to approve a modified plan that had been submitted by GM on February 15, 1978. 19

At this point, however, GM informed the EPA that "[a]bout forty percent of the subject vehicles are beyond five years old and many more will have accumulated more than 50,000 miles." 20 GM urged the Administrator to cancel the recall and averred that, if the EPA were to go forward with the recall, "only those vehicles within the lesser of five years or 50,000 miles of operation at the time of presentation to the dealer for repairs will receive the campaign adjustments at General Motors (sic ) expense." 21 EPA responded on May 30, 1980 by promulgating what it labelled an "interpretive rule" 22 setting out the EPA's position that the Clean Air Act requires "manufacturers to submit a plan to remedy all vehicles within the class or category of vehicles subject to an ordered recall which experienced the nonconformity during their useful lives regardless of their age or mileage at the time of repair." 23 Shortly thereafter, the EPA wrote to GM, refusing to withdraw the recall order. 24 The EPA letter formally approved GM's remedial plan of February 15, 1978 insofar as it applied to vehicles still within their useful lives at the time of repair. 25 But, relying on the May 30 rule, the agency disapproved the plan insofar as it related to vehicles beyond their useful lives. 26 The letter also reflected EPA's finding that, at least with respect to vehicles beyond their useful lives, GM had "failed to submit a [remedial] plan as required by section 207(c)(1) of the Act...." 27 GM petitioned this court, seeking review of both the May 30 rule and EPA's partial disapproval of GM's remedial plan. 28

ANALYSIS
A. Standard of Review

We begin by noting that we are called upon in this case to review an interpretative, not a legislative, rule. While this observation may seem apparent, the nature of the May 30 rule has been hotly contested by the parties. Although EPA has from the start characterized the rule as "interpretive," 29 GM argues that, because the rule substantially expands the scope of a manufacturer's liability under the recall provisions of the Act, the rule should be viewed instead as an improperly promulgated legislative rule. 30

Where, as here, an agency has the authority to issue both legislative and interpretative rules, 31 the line between the two is often blurred. 32 Nevertheless, the determining factor is the agency's authority and intent in promulgating the rule. 33 Although an agency's own labelling of a rule is not dispositive of the question of intent, 34 it is indicative and is entitled to judicial deference. 35 There is nothing in this record to suggest that EPA ever intended this rule to carry any weight beyond that ordinarily attending an agency's interpretation of a statute. 36

The Supreme Court has pointed out that "[o]rdinarily, administrative interpretations are given important but not controlling significance." 37 The precise weight to be accorded an interpretative rule "in a particular case will depend upon the thoroughness evident in its consideration, the validity of its reasoning, its consistency with earlier and later pronouncements, and all those factors which give it power to persuade, if lacking power to control." 38 The EPA rule does not receive "high marks when judged by [these] standards ...." 39 The rule was not a contemporaneous interpretation of the Clean Air Act, and there is no evidence that it reflects a longstanding interpretation of the Act by the agency. 40

Nor does the rule involve the kind of fact-intensive questions concerning which great deference need be given the agency's technical expertise; rather, as the agency itself concedes, "[s]ince the rule simply expresses an interpretation of the law based on the language, legislative history and policy of the Clean Air Act, no factual data need be analyzed or commented on." 41 Consequently, although some deference is to be accorded to the May 30 rule, our inquiry will focus on whether EPA's interpretation is reasonable and supportable in light of the statutory language and legislative history. 42

B. Statutory Language

In reviewing an agency's interpretation of a statute, a court should first examine the language of that statute to determine whether the interpretation falls within the statute's plain meaning. 43 In the instant case, however, the statutory language is ambiguous at best. Section 207(c)(1) of the Act provides in relevant part:

If the Administrator determines that a substantial number of any class or category of vehicles or engines, although properly maintained and used, do not conform to ... [emissions standards], when in actual use throughout their useful life ..., he shall immediately notify the manufacturer thereof of such nonconformity, and he shall require the manufacturer to submit a plan for remedying the nonconformity of the vehicles or engines with respect to which such notification is given. The plan shall provide that the nonconformity of any such vehicles or engines which are properly used and maintained will be remedied at...

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