Potrero Hills Landfill Inc. v. County of Solano

Decision Date13 September 2011
Docket NumberNo. 10–15229.,10–15229.
Citation73 ERC 1225,11 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 11700,657 F.3d 876,2011 Daily Journal D.A.R. 13915
PartiesPOTRERO HILLS LANDFILL, INC.; BLT Enterprises of Sacramento, Inc.; Brentwood Disposal Service, Inc.; Concord Disposal Service, Inc.; Contra Costa Waste Service, Inc.; Discovery Bay Disposal, Inc.; Oakley Disposal Service, Inc.; Pittsburg Disposal and Debris Box Service, Inc.; Rio Vista Sanitation Service, Inc.; Waste Connections, Inc.; Waste Connections of California, Inc., DBA El Dorado Disposal Service; Trashpros, LLC; West Coast Recycling and Transfer, Inc., Plaintiffs–Appellants,v.COUNTY OF SOLANO, Defendant–Appellee,Sierra Club; Northern California Recycling Association; Sprawldef, aka Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Defense Fund, Defendants–Intervenors–Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit


James B. Slaughter, Beveridge and Diamond, Washington, D.C., and Lily N. Chinn, Beveridge and Diamond, San Francisco, CA, for the plaintiffs-appellants.James W. Laughlin, Deputy County Counsel, Fairfield, CA, for the defendant-appellee.Robert S. Perlmutter, Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, San Francisco, CA, for defendant-intervenor-appellee Sierra Club.John Douglas Moore, Henn, Etzel & Moore, Inc., Oakland, CA, for defendant-intervenor-appellee Northern California Recycling Association.Kelly T. Smith, The Smith Firm, Sacramento, CA, for defendant-intervenor-appellee Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund.Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California, John A. Mendez, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. 2:09–cv–02514–JAM–JFM.Before: STEPHEN REINHARDT, MICHAEL DALY HAWKINS, and RONALD M. GOULD, Circuit Judges.


HAWKINS, Senior Circuit Judge:

Potrero Hills Landfill (Potrero Hills), a privately owned solid waste and recycling business in Solano County, California (“the County”), and twenty-two related businesses appeal the dismissal on Younger1 abstention grounds of their 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action for declaratory and injunctive relief challenging the constitutionality of a voter-enacted county ordinance restricting the import of out-of-county solid waste into Solano County—an ordinance that the County itself believes to be unconstitutional and refuses to enforce. We hold that Younger abstention does not apply here. Although private mandamus actions seeking to compel the County to enforce the challenged ordinance were ongoing in state court at the time this case was filed, those state proceedings were brought by private interest groups and therefore did not implicate the state's unique interest in protecting its vital executive function of law enforcement; nor did they implicate the state's unique interests in protecting its vital judicial or legislative functions. Put differently, a federal court's exercise of jurisdiction over Potrero Hills' claim would not interfere with the state's exercise of a basic state function and would not offend the principles of comity and federalism that Younger abstention was designed to uphold. Accordingly, we vacate and remand. As part of the remand, we ask the district court to consider whether Pullman, 2 rather than Younger, abstention might be appropriate.

I. Background

In 1984, voters in Solano County (“the County”) enacted a ballot initiative, titled “Initiative Ordinance to Protect Solano County's Environment from Excessive Importation of Solid Waste” (“Measure E”), capping the annual amount of solid waste that may be imported into Solano County at 95,000 tons. 3 The measure contained no restrictions on the disposal of solid waste generated within the County.

Although the County initially complied with Measure E by including annual waste import limits in its Solid Waste Management Plan, it stopped doing so in 1992, in reliance on a legal opinion issued by the Solano County Counsel concluding that Measure E was likely unconstitutional, in light of two recent Supreme Court decisions striking down similar local waste import restrictions as violative of the dormant Commerce Clause.4 The Legislative Counsel of California reached the same conclusion in its own legal opinion on the measure. Shortly thereafter, the County approved permit revision applications from each of the two major solid waste facilities located within the County, one of which was Potrero Hills, allowing disposal of increased quantities of solid waste. Although the permits did not explicitly allow importation of more than 95,000 tons of out-of-County solid waste, it authorized a quantity substantially greater than locally generated amounts, thus implicitly permitting the two facilities to violate Measure E.

As a result, Potrero Hills became one of the three largest landfills servicing the San Francisco Bay Area and today receives some 600,000 tons of solid waste annually from jurisdictions outside Solano County, comprising two-thirds of its total waste intake. Projected to reach full capacity by 2011, it sought permission from the County in 2002 to expand its landfill from 320 to 580 acres, which would provide an additional 61.6 million cubic feet (43 million tons) of new capacity (“Expansion Project”). The Solano County Board of Supervisors approved the Expansion Project and certified the project's Final Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”).

Several environmental groups opposing the Expansion Project, including Intervenor Northern California Recycling Association (NCRA), brought suit in Solano County Superior Court challenging the sufficiency of the EIR pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act. A revised EIR was produced and approved but was subject to a second suit by environmental groups, including Intervenor Sustainability, Parks, Recycling, and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund (“Wildlife Fund”), who raised Measure E as an additional bar to approval of the Expansion Project. A third EIR was produced and once again approved.

II. State Mandamus Petitions

Following final approval of Potrero Hills' Expansion Project, NCRA, Wildlife Fund, and a third environmental group, the Sierra Club, each filed a mandamus action in Solano County Superior Court, all seeking generalized injunctive relief requiring the County to enforce Measure E, two of them naming Potrero Hills as a real party in interest and seeking to overturn the County's approval of the landfill Expansion Project. The three proceedings were consolidated for briefing and hearing on the merits.

III. Federal Action

A few weeks after the last state mandamus action was filed, Potrero Hills and twenty-two other plaintiffs involved in the solid waste and recycling business in either Northern California, Nevada, or Oregon, filed this single-cause action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeking a declaration that Measure E is unconstitutional in violation of the Commerce Clause and an injunction blocking its enforcement. The three state court petitioners intervened (Intervenors) and moved to dismiss under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and 12(b)(1), or in the alternative to abstain from deciding the case under Younger and Pullman. Potrero Hills opposed the motions to dismiss and was joined by the County in requesting resolution in federal court, as well as by the State of California, which filed an amicus brief.5 Citing the state's important interests in “enforcement of Measure E, a local ordinance enacted by California voters,” and in “enforcement of its local solid waste ordinance,” the district court invoked Younger abstention and dismissed the suit without reaching Intervenor's alternative arguments for dismissal. 6


We review de novo the district court's decision to abstain under the Younger doctrine. Green v. City of Tucson, 255 F.3d 1086, 1093 (9th Cir.2001) (en banc), overruled in part on other grounds by Gilbertson v. Albright, 381 F.3d 965, 976–78 (9th Cir.2004) (en banc).


The issue before us is not the constitutionality of Measure E but rather only whether the district court properly dismissed the case based on Younger abstention, a doctrine that forbids federal courts from unduly interfering with pending state court proceedings that implicate “important state interests.” Middlesex Cnty. Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 432, 102 S.Ct. 2515, 73 L.Ed.2d 116 (1982). The district court determined that the ongoing state mandamus proceedings implicate the state's important interests in (1) enforcing a local ordinance enacted by California voters and (2) enforcing a local solid waste ordinance, and that the remaining Younger requirements are also satisfied. Although we agree that a state's interest in having its executive branch enforce such measures is sufficiently important for Younger purposes, we conclude that a private litigant's interest in seeing such measures enforced, which is all we have here, does not implicate the principles of comity and federalism with which Younger and its progeny are concerned.

I. Basic Younger Principles

Although Younger itself held that, absent extraordinary circumstances, a federal court may not interfere with a pending state criminal prosecution, 401 U.S. at 54, 91 S.Ct. 746, the Supreme Court has extended Younger abstention to the civil context on numerous occasions. In Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Association, 457 U.S. 423, 102 S.Ct. 2515, 73 L.Ed.2d 116 (1982), the Supreme Court laid out a three-part test for determining when to apply Younger to a civil proceeding, holding that abstention is required so long as the state proceedings: (1) are ongoing; (2) implicate “important state interests”; and (3) provide an adequate opportunity to raise federal questions. 457 U.S. at 432, 102 S.Ct. 2515. To these three threshold requirements, we recently articulated an implied fourth requirement that (4) the federal court action would ‘enjoin the...

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