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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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