Home » Case Summaries » 2016 » Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. County of Los Angeles, 840 F.3d 1098 (9th Cir. 2016)

 
 

Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. County of Los Angeles, 840 F.3d 1098 (9th Cir. 2016)

 

 

Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper (collectively, NRDC) filed a lawsuit in 2008 against Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, alleging these defendants violated the terms of a 2001 National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, issued under the Clean Water Act[1] (CWA), by discharging polluted stormwater into the region’s waters. In 2013, the Ninth Circuit found that defendants violated the permit as a matter of law, based on pollution levels in the receiving waters.[2] However, by this point defendants had sought and received a new permit. On this basis, defendants filed a motion to dismiss in 2015, alleging that the challenge was moot. The district court, after finding that the new permit relaxed applicable standards and that defendants were in compliance with the new permit, granted defendants’ motion.[3] The Ninth Circuit, reviewing the mootness determination de novo, reversed.

The Ninth Circuit stated that a motion to dismiss a case as moot must “demonstrate that it is absolutely clear that the allegedly wrong behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur.”[4] Defendants argued that the 2012 permit changed compliance requirements, thereby supplanting the 2001 permit, and that present and future compliance with these requirements was undisputed.

The Ninth Circuit first noted that claims for injunctive relief do not become moot simply because a new permit is issued; rather, that new permit must also result in changes that render the requested injunction incapable of providing effective relief. The court stated that the relaxed standards in the new permit are contingent on the success of two watershed management programs, and that this contingency failed to satisfy the defendant’s burden of “absolutely clear” evidence that a future permit violation would not occur. In addition, the Ninth Circuit determined that the district court had erroneously placed the evidentiary burden on NRDC, rather than on the defendants.

Applying the “absolutely clear” standard to the evidence presented by the defendants, the Ninth Circuit found that defendants could not satisfy the standard for two reasons. First, the court noted the relaxed standards in the 2012 permit might be invalidated in a future court proceeding, given that a concurrent proceeding filed by NRDC challenged the 2012 permit for violations of the CWA’s “anti-backsliding” provisions. Second, regardless of the 2012 permit’s validity, the Ninth Circuit noted defendants had not completed financing and implementing the watershed management programs required before the relaxed standards applied. Given the uncertainty surrounding these programs, the Ninth Circuit found that defendants had failed to establish that future injunctive relief would not be necessary.

In sum, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s approval of a motion to dismiss on mootness grounds. The court found that defendants failed to provide “absolutely clear” evidence that plaintiffs’ lawsuit sought a remedy that was no longer necessary in light of the 2012 permit.

 

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Federal Water Pollution Control Act, 33 U.S.C. §§ 1251–1387 (2012).
  2. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc. v. County of Los Angeles, 725 F.3d 1194, 1196–97 (9th Cir. 2013).
  3. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc. v. County of Los Angeles, No. CV 08–01467 BRO (PLAx), 2015 WL 1459476, at *1 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 30, 2015).
  4. Nat. Res. Def. Council, Inc. v. County of Los Angeles, 840 F.3d 1098, 1102 (9th Cir. 2016) (citing Gwaltney of Smithfield, Ltd. v. Chesapeake Bay Found., Inc., 484 U.S. 49, 66 (1987)).
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