Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment

Citation523 U.S. 83
Decision Date04 March 1998
Docket NumberNo. 96-643.,96-643.
PartiesSTEEL CO., aka CHICAGO STEEL & PICKLING CO. v. CITIZENS FOR A BETTER ENVIRONMENT
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined, and in which Breyer, J., joined as to Parts I and IV. O'Connor, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Kennedy, J., joined, post, p. 110. Breyer, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 111. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Souter, J., joined as to Parts I, III, and IV, and Ginsburg, J., joined as to Part III, post, p. 112. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 134.

Sanford M. Stein argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Leo P. Dombrowski.

David A. Strauss argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were James D. Brusslan and Stefan A. Noe.

Irving L. Gornstein argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Assistant Attorney General Schiffer, Deputy Solicitor General Wallace, James A. Feldman, Edward J. Shawaker, and Mark R. Haag.*

Justice Scalia, delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a private enforcement action under the citizen-suit provision of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act of 1986 (EPCRA), 100 Stat. 1755, 42 U. S. C. § 11046(a)(1). The case presents the merits question, answered in the affirmative by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, whether EPCRA authorizes suits for purely past violations. It also presents the jurisdictional question whether respondent, plaintiff below, has standing to bring this action.

I

Respondent, an association of individuals interested in environmental protection, sued petitioner, a small manufacturing company in Chicago, for past violations of EPCRA. EPCRA establishes a framework of state, regional, and local agencies designed to inform the public about the presence of hazardous and toxic chemicals, and to provide for emergency response in the event of health-threatening release. Central to its operation are reporting requirements compelling users of specified toxic and hazardous chemicals to file annual "emergency and hazardous chemical inventory forms" and "toxic chemical release forms," which contain, inter alia, the name and location of the facility, the name and quantity of the chemical on hand, and, in the case of toxic chemicals, the waste-disposal method employed and the annual quantity released into each environmental medium. 42 U. S. C. §§ 11022 and 11023. The hazardous-chemical inventory forms for any given calendar year are due the following March 1st, and the toxic-chemical release forms the following July 1st. §§ 11022(a)(2) and 11023(a).

Enforcement of EPCRA can take place on many fronts.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the most powerful enforcement arsenal: it may seek criminal, civil, or administrative penalties. § 11045. State and local governments can also seek civil penalties, as well as injunctive relief. §§ 11046(a)(2) and (c). For purposes of this case, however, the crucial enforcement mechanism is the citizen-suit provision, § 11046(a)(1), which likewise authorizes civil penalties and injunctive relief, see § 11046(c). This provides that "any person may commence a civil action on his own behalf against . . . an owner or operator of a facility for failure," among other things, to "complete and submit an inventory form under section 11022(a) of this title . . . and section 11023(a) of this title." § 11046(a)(1). As a prerequisite to bringing such a suit, the plaintiff must, 60 days prior to filing his complaint, give notice to the Administrator of the EPA, the State in which the alleged violation occurs, and the alleged violator. § 11046(d). The citizen suit may not go forward if the Administrator "has commenced and is diligently pursuing an administrative order or civil action to enforce the requirement concerned or to impose a civil penalty." § 11046(e).

In 1995 respondent sent a notice to petitioner, the Administrator, and the relevant Illinois authorities, alleging—accurately, as it turns out—that petitioner had failed since 1988, the first year of EPCRA's filing deadlines, to complete and to submit the requisite hazardous-chemical inventory and toxic-chemical release forms under §§ 11022 and 11023. Upon receiving the notice, petitioner filed all of the overdue forms with the relevant agencies. The EPA chose not to bring an action against petitioner, and when the 60-day waiting period expired, respondent filed suit in Federal District Court. Petitioner promptly filed a motion to dismiss under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6), contending that, because its filings were up to date when the complaint was filed, the court had no jurisdiction to entertain a suit for a present violation; and that, because EPCRA does not allow suit for a purely historical violation, respondent's allegation of untimeliness in filing was not a claim upon which relief could be granted.

The District Court agreed with petitioner on both points. App. to Pet. for Cert. A24—A26. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that citizens may seek penalties against EPCRA violators who file after the statutory deadline and after receiving notice. 90 F. 3d 1237 (CA7 1996). We granted certiorari, 519 U. S. 1147 (1997).

II

We granted certiorari in this case to resolve a conflict between the interpretation of EPCRA adopted by the Seventh Circuit and the interpretation previously adopted by the Sixth Circuit in Atlantic States Legal Foundation, Inc. v. United Musical Instruments, U. S. A., Inc., 61 F. 3d 473 (1995)a case relied on by the District Court, and acknowledged by the Seventh Circuit to be "factually indistinguishable," 90 F. 3d, at 1241-1242. Petitioner, however, both in its petition for certiorari and in its briefs on the merits, has raised the issue of respondent's standing to maintain the suit, and hence this Court's jurisdiction to entertain it. Though there is some dispute on this point, see Part III, infra, this would normally be considered a threshold question that must be resolved in respondent's favor before proceeding to the merits. Justice Stevens' opinion concurring in the judgment, however, claims that the question whether § 11046(a) permits this cause of action is also "jurisdictional," and so has equivalent claim to being resolved first. Whether that is so has significant implications for this case and for many others, and so the point warrants extended discussion.

It is firmly established in our cases that the absence of a valid (as opposed to arguable) cause of action does not implicate subject-matter jurisdiction, i. e., the courts' statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the case. See generally 5A C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1350, p. 196, n. 8 and cases cited (2d ed. 1990). As we stated in Bell v. Hood, 327 U. S. 678, 682 (1946), "jurisdiction . . . is not defeated . . . by the possibility that the averments might fail to state a cause of action on which petitioners could actually recover." Rather, the district court has jurisdiction if "the right of the petitioners to recover under their complaint will be sustained if the Constitution and laws of the United States are given one construction and will be defeated if they are given another," id., at 685, unless the claim "clearly appears to be immaterial and made solely for the purpose of obtaining jurisdiction or where such a claim is wholly insubstantial and frivolous." Id., at 682-683; see also Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic, 506 U. S. 263, 285 (1993); The Fair v. Kohler Die & Specialty Co., 228 U. S. 22, 25 (1913). Dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction because of the inadequacy of the federal claim is proper only when the claim is "so insubstantial, implausible, foreclosed by prior decisions of this Court, or otherwise completely devoid of merit as not to involve a federal controversy." Oneida Indian Nation of N. Y. v. County of Oneida, 414 U. S. 661, 666 (1974); see also Romero v. International Terminal Operating Co., 358 U. S. 354, 359 (1959). Here, respondent wins under one construction of EPCRA and loses under another, and Justice Stevens does not argue that respondent's claim is frivolous or immaterial— in fact, acknowledges that the language of the citizen-suit provision is ambiguous. Post, at 131.

Justice Stevens relies on our treatment of a similar issue as jurisdictional in Gwaltney of Smithfield, Ltd. v. Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Inc., 484 U. S. 49 (1987). Post, at 114. The statute at issue in that case, however, after creating the cause of action, went on to say that "the district courts shall have jurisdiction, without regard to the amount in controversy or the citizenship of the parties, " to provide various forms of relief. 33 U. S. C. § 1365(a) (emphasis added). The italicized phrase strongly suggested (perhaps misleadingly) that the provision was addressing genuine subject-matter jurisdiction. The corresponding provision in the present case, however, reads as follows:

"The district court shall have jurisdiction in actions brought under subsection (a) of this section against an owner or operator of a facility to enforce the requirement concerned and to impose any civil penalty provided for violation of that requirement." 42 U. S. C. § 11046(c). It is unreasonable to read this as making all the elements of the cause of action under subsection (a) jurisdictional, rather than as merely specifying the remedial powers of the court, viz., to enforce the violated requirement and to impose civil penalties. "Jurisdicti
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