Voyageur Outward Bound Sch. v. United States, Case No. 1:18-cv-01463 (TNM)

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Writing for the CourtTREVOR N. McFADDEN, U.S.D.J.
Citation444 F.Supp.3d 182
Parties VOYAGEUR OUTWARD BOUND SCHOOL, et al., Plaintiffs, v. UNITED STATES, et al., Defendants, v. Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, et al., Defendant-Intervenors. Wilderness Society, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Ryan Zinke, et al., Defendants, v. Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, et al., Defendant-Intervenors. Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Bureau of Land Management, et al., Defendants, v. Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, et al., Defendant-Intervenors.
Decision Date17 March 2020
Docket Number Case No. 1:18-cv-01496 (TNM),Case No. 1:18-cv-01463 (TNM), Case No. 1:18-cv-01499 (TNM)

444 F.Supp.3d 182

VOYAGEUR OUTWARD BOUND SCHOOL, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES, et al., Defendants,
v.
Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, et al., Defendant-Intervenors.


Wilderness Society, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Ryan Zinke, et al., Defendants,
v.
Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, et al., Defendant-Intervenors.


Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Bureau of Land Management, et al., Defendants,
v.
Twin Metals Minnesota LLC, et al., Defendant-Intervenors.

Case No. 1:18-cv-01463 (TNM)
Case No. 1:18-cv-01496 (TNM)
Case No. 1:18-cv-01499 (TNM)

United States District Court, District of Columbia.

Signed March 17, 2020


444 F.Supp.3d 187

Amy Slusser Conners, Pro Hac Vice, Thomas Backer Heffelfinger, Pro Hac Vice, Best & Flanagan, LLP, Ari Bernard Lukoff, Pro Hac Vice, Richard Bruce Allyn, Pro Hac Vice, Stephen P. Safranski, Pro Hac Vice, Robins Kaplan LLP, Minneapolis, MN, Dustin Charles Elliott, Joseph Alexander Ward, Morrison & Foerster, LLP, Washington, DC, Eric Paul Jorgensen, Erin Whalen, Pro Hac Vice, Earthjustice, Juneau, AK, Janette K. Brimmer, Pro Hac Vice, Earthjustice, Seattle, WA, Meegan F. Hollywood, Pro Hac Vice, Robins Kaplan LLP, New York, NY, for Plaintiffs.

Barclay Samford, United States Department of Justice, Denver, CO, Tyler McVeigh Alexander, Marissa Ann Piropato, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Defendants.

Daniel S. Volchok, Paul R.Q. Wolfson, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, Washington, DC, for Defendant-Intervenors.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

TREVOR N. McFADDEN, U.S.D.J.

When do federal agencies get a mulligan? Is one year later too late to take a second shot? Can they completely change their minds? And, if so, what kind of explanation justifies their reversal?

When the Department of the Interior ("Interior") reinstated Twin Metals Minnesota's mining leases in Minnesota's Superior National Forest one year after canceling those leases, local businesses and conservation groups objected. The leases had expired. Interior could not reverse course one year later by claiming that the original lease cancelation was erroneous, they claimed. Naturally, Interior disagreed. It claims agencies have "inherent reconsideration authority" which allows them to review and reverse prior decisions—particularly when there is an error to correct. And its first decision was riddled with legal errors.

The Court agrees with Interior. Because Interior has inherent authority to timely reconsider its prior decisions and reasonably did so here, the Court will grant summary judgment to the Defendants.

I.

More than fifty years ago, a division of Interior—the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—issued two mining leases to Twin Metals' predecessor, International

444 F.Supp.3d 188

Nickel Company (INCO).1 Joint App'x 102–25, ECF No. 73-1 ("J.A. 2").2 These leases gave Twin Metals the exclusive right to mine certain minerals in northern Minnesota on Weeks' Act lands, 16 U.S.C. § 515, and in the Superior National Forest. Id. at 114–15. The leases lasted for a twenty-year term and were subject to several renewal terms. Id. Twin Metals applied for and received lease renewals in 1989 and 2004. Id. at 53–57, 70–73.

In 2012, Twin Metals again applied to renew the leases. Id. at 41–49. But Interior denied its application. Joint App'x 35–38, ECF No. 73 ("J.A. 1"). Interior's then-Solicitor Hilary Tompkins issued a legal opinion ("Tompkins Opinion") finding that the 2004 renewed leases only afforded Twin Metals a "preferential right" of renewal—not automatic renewal. Id. at 51. This meant that, under the two statutes that govern development of federal hardrock minerals on these leased areas, Interior needed to seek consent of the Secretary of Agriculture before authorizing mineral development. See 16 U.S.C. § 508b ; 16 U.S.C. § 520. Particularly, before renewing Twin Metals' leases, BLM needed to "consult[ ] with the Forest Service"—a branch of the Department of Agriculture—to determine whether the leases were "consistent with the decision, terms, and conditions of the applicable comprehensive land use plans for the area" and obtain "Forest Service consent[ ] to the permit or lease." See Defs.' Cross Mot. Summary J. 24, ECF No. 66 (citing 43 C.F.R. § 3501.17(a) ; 43 C.F.R. § 3503.13(a)(1) ; 43 C.F.R. § 3503.13(c) ). The Forest Service refused consent, see Joint App'x 34, ECF No. 73-2 ("J.A. 3"), so Interior rejected Twin Metals' renewal application later that year, J.A. 1 at 35–37.

One year after Interior's official rejection, the new Acting Solicitor of the Interior, Daniel Jorjani, rescinded the Tompkins Opinion and issued a new one ("Jorjani Opinion"). J.A. 1 at 14. This opinion concluded that Tompkins misapplied contract law and misinterpreted the lease. Id. at 32. The correct interpretation of the leases proved that Twin Metals was entitled to "a non-discretionary right to a third renewal." Id. Since "BLM's prior request for Forest Service consent was based on the legal error that the United States had discretion to decide whether to renew the leases," Interior informed the Forest Service that its denial of consent to the leases "was not legally operative." Id. at 12. BLM needed not obtain consent for non-discretionary renewals. So five months later, Interior officially reinstated the leases. Id. at 11.

Plaintiffs (collectively, "Voyageur")—businesses and conservation groups that assert interests in the Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters Wilderness where the leased land is located—object that this reversal was unlawful. They filed three separate cases under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA") claiming, first, that Interior exceeded its authority by reversing the Tompkins Opinion. See Voyageur Compl. ¶ 110–20, No. 18-cv-01463, ECF No. 1; Wilderness Soc'y Compl. ¶ 52–55, No. 18-cv-01496, ECF No. 1; Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (FOBW) Compl. ¶ 110–116, No. 18-cv-01499, ECF No. 7.

Second, they insist that Interior's renewal of Twin Metals' leases was "not otherwise in accordance with law." In other words, reissuing the leases violated the

444 F.Supp.3d 189

mining authorization statute for the Superior National Forest, 16 U.S.C. § 508(b) ; the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, 43 U.S.C. § 1701(a)(8) ; the Boundary Waters Wilderness Act, Pub. L. No. 95-495, 92 Stat. 1649, § 2(4) (1978); the Wilderness Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1133(b) ; and the National Forest Management Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1604(g)(3). See Voyageur Compl. ¶ 121–32; Wilderness Soc'y Compl. ¶ 47–51, 56–61; FOBW Compl. ¶ 117–129.

The Court consolidated these cases and permitted Twin Metals and Franconia Minerals (collectively, "Twin Metals") to appear as Defendant-Intervenors. See Minute Order (July 25, 2018); Minute Order (June 28, 2018). The parties have now filed cross motions for summary judgment. See Pls.' Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 61; Defs.' Cross Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 67; Intervenor Cross Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 64. The Court held a consolidated motions hearing and invited supplemental briefing on two outstanding legal questions. See Minute Entry (Dec. 20, 2019); Order (Jan. 3, 2020) ECF No. 76. The case is now ripe for adjudication.

II.

A court will normally grant summary judgment when there "is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) ; see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). But Rule 56's standards do not apply in APA cases. See Sierra Club v. Mainella , 459 F. Supp. 2d 76, 89 (D.D.C. 2006). In these cases, summary judgment "serves as the mechanism for deciding, as a matter of law, whether the agency action is supported by the administrative record and otherwise consistent with the APA standard of review." Sierra Club , 459 F. Supp. 2d at 90 (citing Richards v. INS , 554 F.2d 1173, 1177 & n.28 (D.C. Cir. 1977) ).

Under the APA, the Court will set aside Interior's decision only if "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law." Grant Med. Ctr. v. Hargan , 875 F.3d 701, 705 (D.C. Cir. 2017) (quoting 5 U.S.C. § 706(2)(A) ). The Court must determine whether "the agency acted within the scope of its legal authority, whether the agency has explained its decision, whether the facts on which the agency purports to have relied have some basis in the record, and whether the agency considered the relevant factors." Fulbright v. McHugh , 67 F. Supp. 3d 81, 89 (D.D.C. 2014) (citations omitted), aff'd sub nom. Fulbright v. Murphy , 650 F. App'x 3 (D.C. Cir. 2016).

At all stages of litigation, Plaintiffs must also prove that they have standing. See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife , 504 U.S. 555, 561, 112 S.Ct. 2130, 119 L.Ed.2d 351 (1992). On summary judgment, this means that Plaintiffs must "identify in [the] record evidence sufficient to support [their] standing to seek review[.]" Sierra Club v. EPA , 292 F.3d 895, 899 (D.C. Cir. 2002).

III.

Voyageur mounts two APA-based attacks on Interior's reissuance of Twin Metals' leases. First, it contends that the lease renewals were unlawful because Interior lacked the authority to reconsider its initial decision. Pls.'...

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3 practice notes
  • Cason v. Nat'l Football League Players Ass'n, Case No. 1:20-cv-01875 (TNM)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • May 7, 2021
    ...understanding or that the agreements mean something other than what they say. Cf. Voyageur Outward Bound Sch. v. United States , 444 F. Supp. 3d 182, 200 (D.D.C. 2020) (considering only whether contracting parties’ joint understanding of contract was "reasonable" in face of differing interp......
  • Cason v. Nat'l Football League Players Ass'n, Case No. 1:20-cv-01875 (TNM)
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Columbia
    • May 7, 2021
    ...hidden understanding or that the agreements mean something other than what they say. Cf. Voyageur Outward Bound Sch. v. United States, 444 F. Supp. 3d 182, 200 (D.D.C. 2020) (considering only whether contracting parties' joint understanding of contract was "reasonable" in face of differing ......
  • Voyageur Outward Bound Sch. v. United States, Case No. 1:18-cv-01463 (TNM)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • May 13, 2021
    ...have deprived [Defendant-Intervernors] Twin Metals of its right to valuable leases." Voyageur Outward Bound Sch. v. United States, 444 F. Supp. 3d 182, 204 (D.D.C. 2020). Plaintiffs now ask the Court to take a mulligan of its own. They move under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) for re......
3 cases
  • Cason v. Nat'l Football League Players Ass'n, Case No. 1:20-cv-01875 (TNM)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • May 7, 2021
    ...understanding or that the agreements mean something other than what they say. Cf. Voyageur Outward Bound Sch. v. United States , 444 F. Supp. 3d 182, 200 (D.D.C. 2020) (considering only whether contracting parties’ joint understanding of contract was "reasonable" in face of differing interp......
  • Cason v. Nat'l Football League Players Ass'n, Case No. 1:20-cv-01875 (TNM)
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Columbia
    • May 7, 2021
    ...hidden understanding or that the agreements mean something other than what they say. Cf. Voyageur Outward Bound Sch. v. United States, 444 F. Supp. 3d 182, 200 (D.D.C. 2020) (considering only whether contracting parties' joint understanding of contract was "reasonable" in face of differing ......
  • Voyageur Outward Bound Sch. v. United States, Case No. 1:18-cv-01463 (TNM)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • May 13, 2021
    ...have deprived [Defendant-Intervernors] Twin Metals of its right to valuable leases." Voyageur Outward Bound Sch. v. United States, 444 F. Supp. 3d 182, 204 (D.D.C. 2020). Plaintiffs now ask the Court to take a mulligan of its own. They move under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) for re......

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