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Judges split on District Court’s use of Colorado River abstention doctrine

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that a homeowners’ citizen suit under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act against a solid waste dump should be allowed despite two similar suits pending in state court filed by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. However, the court split when determining whether the District Court erred by dismissing the homeowners’ suit based on the Colorado River abstention doctrine.

IDEM filed a suit in state court in 2008 against VIM Recycling, which operates a solid waste dump in Elkhart, to enforce an agreed order with regard to VIM’s failure to remove its “C” grade waste at the dump. Several Elkhart homeowners tried to intervene in this suit and were denied, so they filed a federal suit under the RCRA challenging the disposal of all solid waste on the site and other claims. After this suit was properly filed, IDEM filed a second lawsuit in state court regarding the “B” grade waste disposal.

The District Court granted VIM’s motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit, ruling it didn’t have federal subject matter jurisdiction under the RCRA because IDEM was pursuing the same claims in state court. The District Court also claimed it should abstain from exercising jurisdiction over the RCRA claims under Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943), and Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976).

In Jerry Adkins, et al. v. Kenneth Will, et al., No. 10-2237, the judges agreed that the statutory bar against citizen suits in RCRA isn’t jurisdictional and that the first state action filed by IDEM doesn’t bar the plaintiffs’ claims under the “violations” provision of the RCRA. The second suit filed by IDEM after the plaintiffs filed their federal suit also doesn’t bar the plaintiffs’ claims. The judges agreed that the District Court abused its discretion in finding abstention under the Burford doctrine.

But with regards to abstention under the Colorado River doctrine, Judges Kenneth Ripple, David Hamilton and G. Patrick Murphy of the Southern District of Illinois, sitting by designation, were unable to agree as to whether the District Court abused its discretion by relying on that doctrine to dismiss the homeowners’ suit. Judges Hamilton and Murphy concluded the District Court’s use of this doctrine was unprecedented, as there has been no other case in any court in which a RCRA citizen suit that complied with the statutory requirements was nevertheless stayed or dismissed under Colorado River. This doctrine comes into play when parallel state court and federal court lawsuits are pending between the same parties, and the doctrine is a matter of judicial economy, wrote Judge Hamilton.

The majority believed the doctrine conflicted with congressional policy choices reflected in the RCRA itself and the decision to abstain stretched Colorado River abstention too far.  The federal and state actions weren’t actually parallel and there were no exceptional circumstances to justify abstention, wrote the judge.

Judge Ripple believed the doctrine could be used in this case based on the concurrent state and federal actions. He believed the simultaneous supervision of the remediation process by the state and federal courts would be a “recipe for delay, confusion and wasted judicial resources.” He noted it isn’t clear how any of the plaintiffs’ interests are impaired if the federal case is stayed, as a dismissal of the case is inappropriate because the plaintiffs met the statutory requirements to bring the federal suit.

The case was remanded for further proceedings.

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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