Friends Of The Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc.

528 U.S. 167 (2000)


In 1986, Laidlaw (D) bought a hazardous waste facility that included a water treatment plant. D was granted an NPDES permit, which placed limits on discharges of certain elements. D’s discharges repeatedly exceeded the limits set by the permit particularly mercury discharges. Section 402 of the Clean Water Act provides for issuance of permits that impose limitations on the discharge of pollutants. Noncompliance with a permit constitutes a violation of the Act. Section 505(a) allows for private citizen suits. There is a notice provision that must be given to the alleged violator sixty days before any suit in order that the alleged violator may bring itself into compliance. A citizen cannot sue under 505(a) for violations that have ceased by the time the complaint is filed. The Clean Water Act authorized suits initiated by a person or persons having an interest, which is or may be adversely affected. On June 12, 1992, FOE (P) filed under 505(a) seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and an award of civil penalties. The District Court found 489 violations from 1987-95. The District Court determined that injunctive relief was inappropriate as the defendant complied after the suit was filed but nonetheless fined them $405,800 finding that the total deterrent effect of the penalty would be adequate to forestall future violations. D contends that FOE lacks standing because none of FOE’s members showed that any of them had sustained or faced the threat of an injury in fact. D points to the fact that at trial, the court found that there had been no demonstrated proof of harm to the environment. The Court of Appeals vacated the District Court's order. They reasoned the case became moot once D fully complied with the terms of its permit and P failed to appeal the denial of equitable relief. 'Civil penalties payable to the government,' the Court of Appeals stated, 'would not redress any injury Plaintiffs have suffered.' Nor were attorneys' fees in order, the Court of Appeals noted, because, absent relief on the merits, plaintiffs could not qualify as prevailing parties.