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U.S. Appellate Court Defines Settling Parties' Rights to CERCLA Contribution and Cost Recovery

Sigel_Gabrielle_COLORBy Gabrielle Sigel

 

On December 19, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a panel decision that clarifies the law within that Circuit on issues left unresolved after several U.S. Supreme Court's decisions interpreting certain provisions of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, 42 U.S.C. § 9601, et seq. ("CERCLA"). In Bernstein v. Bankert, No. 11-1501 (U.S. Ct. App. 7th Cir., Dec. 19, 2012), the appellate court addressed the rights of parties, who settle with U.S. EPA, to pursue non-settling parties for payment of their costs. The court's decision revived CERCLA causes of action that a lower court had ruled were barred under CERCLA's statutes of limitations.

The Bernstein plaintiffs are trustees of a fund that had been established to pay costs of complying with two Administrative Orders on Consent ("AOCs") that potentially responsible parties ("PRPs") had signed with U.S. EPA ‒ one in 1999 and one in 2002 ‒ to address contamination of a property in Indiana known as Third Site. At Third Site, prior to 1982, the now defunct Environmental Chemical and Conservation Company ("Enviro-Chem") had conducted waste handling and disposal activities. The 1999 AOC, which had been executed by both de minimis and other PRPs, required an environmental investigation and engineering analysis at the Site and payment of government costs. In October 2002, U.S. EPA approved the settling parties' activities under that first AOC. In November 2002, U.S. EPA issued a second AOC, this one requiring PRPs to pay for the removal action that EPA selected for the Site. Although several PRPs paid into the trust established to fund the requirements of both AOCs, the alleged former individual owners of the Site ("the Bankerts"), their corporate entity Enviro-Chem, and their insurers did not pay.

In 2008, while the removal action was still ongoing, the trustees filed a complaint against the Bankerts in the Southern District of Indiana seeking CERCLA § 9607 cost recovery, a declaration of CERCLA liability, cost recovery under Indiana's Environmental Legal Actions statute ("ELA"), and recovery under other state law claims. In response to the Bankerts' summary judgment motion, the trial court first found that the trustees could not bring a § 9607 cost recovery claim, only a § 9613(f) contribution claim, and granted the Bankerts' motion for summary judgment on statute of limitations grounds with respect to the federal and state law claims, mooting claims for declaratory judgment and against the insurers. The trustee plaintffs appealed.

The appellate court first addressed the lower court's decision that the trustees could only bring a § 9613(f) contribution claim, and not a § 9607 cost recovery claim, each of which claim has a different statute of limitations. The court provided an overview of CERCLA rights of action, including when they can be triggered. The court found that "under the plain terms of the statute": (1) a person who has been sued under §§ 9606 or 9607 can bring a § 9613(f)(1) contribution action; (2) a person who has resolved liability to the federal or state government for all or some of its costs of a response action can bring a § 9613(f)(3)(B) contribution action; and (3) a person who does not fit into the qualifications for a contribution action, but still has incurred recoverable costs, can bring a § 9607 cost recovery action. (Slip op. 18-19.) The court then analyzed the trustees' rights under each of the AOCs individually, an approach which neither side had taken in their arguments before the court.

Specifically, the court first focused on the 1999 AOC, which it determined that U.S. EPA had approved as completed in October 2000. Thus, the court determined, in October 2000, the settling PRPs had resolved their liability to the government because the government's release of and covenants not to sue the settling PRPs only applied once the work was approved and completed. Because the settling PRPs had resolved their liability to the government, they could bring a contribution action under § 9613(f)(3)(B). The court rejected plaintiffs' claim to a § 9607 cost recovery action, even though they had sustained "necessary costs of response," holding that a plaintiff "is limited to a contribution remedy when one is available." (Slip op. 27.) However, the court then found that plaintiffs' contribution action, filed in 2008, was barred under CERCLA's statutes of limitations. The court did not, however, definitively determine which such statute applied. The Bankerts argued that the statute began running when the AOC was executed in 1999, based on CERCLA § 9613(g)(3), which provides a 3-year period to file contribution action after the signing of a de minimis settlement agreement.  Trustees accepted that argument with respect to de miminis parties' claims, but not with respect to the claims of other settling PRPs. The trustees argued that, because there is a "gap" in the statutory language with respect to non-de miminis parties' claims, the § 9613(g) statute of limitations applicable to § 9607 cost recovery actions should apply. The court found that under either approach, the statute had run prior to the 2008 court filing – either in 2002, 3 years after the AOC was signed, or in 2003, 3 years after the completion of the removal action required in the first AOC.

The court next found that because the work under the 2002 AOC was still continuing, plaintiffs had not yet triggered their release and covenant not to sue from the government. Because their liability to the government was not yet resolved, they could not bring a § 9613 contribution action. Because a contribution action was not available, and because they allegedly had incurred response costs, plaintiffs were able to bring a § 9607 cost recovery action. Because the removal action was not yet completed, the 3-year statute of limitations following the completion of a removal action had not yet begun to run. The court rejected the Bankerts' argument that those "compelled" to incur response costs could not recover under § 9607, finding that neither Supreme Court precedent nor other legal authority required that result. Therefore, plaintiffs could pursue a § 9607 cost recovery action and a declaratory judgment action for costs incurred under the 2002 AOC. The court noted, however, that plaintiffs may not be able to impose joint and several liability because, based on the Supreme Court's decision in Burlington N. and Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. U.S., 556 U.S. 599 (2009), the Bankerts may be able to show a "reasonable basis for apportionment" of their liability. (Slip op. 37.)

The appellate court also found that Indiana's 10-year catch-all statute of limitations applied to the ELA claim and that the statute applies separately to each of the separate AOCs, because each had a separate obligation to pay and, hence, a separate "injury" for statute of limitations purposes, even though both AOCs, as well as prior orders issued by U.S. EPA, pertain to the same Site. In reaching this conclusion, the court rejected the Bankerts' request to certify questions about the state statute of limitations to the Indiana Supreme Court for decision.

Finally, the court found that the Bankerts' insurer was not entitled to summary judgment with respect to its coverge obligations for the Third Site. The insurer previously had won a defense to coverage with respect to a different Enviro-Chem site, and had sought to bar coverage here on claim preclusion or issue preclusion grounds. The court found that the facts concerning the Third Site were distinct so that the trial court needed to separately consider the insurer's coverage obligations at that site.

The Bernstein decision resulted in several important CERCLA and related holdings that, unless modified upon rehearing or en banc or by the Supreme Court, will govern environmental litigation within the Seventh Circuit. Those holdings include:

  • A PRP who qualifies for a CERCLA § 9613(f) contribution action must use that cause of action to recover costs from other PRPs, and cannot use a CERCLA § 9607 cost recovery action.
  • Each government settlement agreement at a single site invokes a distinct payment obligation, each of which can be the basis for a CERCLA cause of action and, therefore, a new running of the applicable statute of limitations.
  • A PRP's right to bring a CERCLA § 9613(f)(3)(B) contribution action in response to its settlement with the government is not triggered unless and until the government issues a final release of the PRP's liability, typically upon acceptance of all work under the settlement agreement. Until that time, a PRP seeking to recover costs of response can only proceed under § 9607.
  • A PRP who executed a settlement with the government and who was "compelled" to pay response costs is entitled to proceed under § 9607; however, that plaintiff PRP will not be able to impose joint and several liability if the defendant PRPR can prove a reasonable basis for apportioning liability.