Home » Case Summaries » 1998 » Southwest Center for Biological Diversity v. Babbitt


Southwest Center for Biological Diversity v. Babbitt



Southwest Center for Biological Diversity (Southwest Center) brought a suit against Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, alleging that the government’s plan to use the Additional Active Conservation Capacity (AACC) behind the Roosevelt Dam violated both the Endangered Species Act (ESA)[1] and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).[2] Specifically, Southwest Center asserted that the government had failed to adequately assess the impact that the use of the AACC would have on the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, an endangered species of bird that nests near the dam. Southwest Center sought injunctive relief to prevent the government from filling the AACC until it completed further environmental study.

The district court dismissed Southwest Center’s action for failure to join the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (Community) as a party to the proceedings. Community was a nonparty with rights under an earlier agreement to store water in the AACC. According to the district court, Community was a necessary and indispensable party to the lawsuit. Under Rule 19 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,[3] the court could not proceed with the legal action without the presence of all necessary and indispensable parties. Thus, the Federal Rules required dismissal of the case.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and remanded the case for further proceedings. While it agreed with the district court’s conclusions that Community had an interest in the outcome of the proceedings, and that an injunction preventing use of the AACC would impair that interest, the Ninth Circuit nevertheless determined that the district court had abused its discretion when it dismissed the case for failure to join Community as a necessary party. The Ninth Circuit stated that “as a practical matter, the Community’s ability to protect its interest [would] not be impaired by its absence from the suit because its interest [would] be represented adequately by the existing parties to Southwest’s suit.”[4]

The court determined that the United States could adequately represent Community’s interest in the suit. First, no conflict of interest existed between the United States and the Tribe. Second, the federal government and Community shared a “strong interest in . . . ensuring that the AACC is available for use as soon as possible.”[5] In addition, the “district court did not question the ability or willingness of the [government] to represent the Community adequately in the . . . suit.”[6]

The Ninth Circuit also rejected the district court’s holding that the government would have been unable to represent Community adequately because the government had not supported Community’s motion to dismiss the case under Rule 19. Characterizing this logic as “circular,”[7] the Ninth Circuit refused to accept the proposition that the government would not adequately represent Community’s interest merely because it had correctly concluded that it need not support Community’s motion to dismiss. In fact, the Ninth Circuit interpreted the government’s action to indicate the opposite of what the district court had proposed; the government’s opposition to the motion to dismiss indicated that the government did not see the need to join Community as a party because the government could represent Community’s interest sufficiently.

The presence in the suit of several intervening municipalities with interests similar to Community buttressed the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that Community was not a necessary party. These cities, however, claimed that they could not adequately represent Community’s interest because they derived their water storage rights from a different source than Community, and they disagreed with Community over interpretation of the agreement that gave Community its rights. The Ninth Circuit disagreed. The court found that these “differences have no bearing on the cities’ ability to represent the Community on the merits of the litigation . . . [because] [n]either the settlement agreement nor the source of the parties’ storage rights [was] at issue in Southwest’s suit.”[8]

Finally, the Ninth Circuit rejected the district court’s determination that Community was a necessary party because its absence from the litigation would expose the existing parties to multiple or otherwise inconsistent obligations. The district court reasoned that if it granted Southwest Center’s injunction, litigation to determine Community’s rights under the resulting agreement would probably follow. The Ninth Circuit, however, held that the contested agreement, rather than the injunction, would be the source of any inconsistent obligations that might arise. The court stated, “Litigation to resolve the ambiguity in the . . . agreement . . . would be just as likely if . . . Community were a party to Southwest’s suit.”[9] In addition, this ambiguity could lead to litigation even if the court were to dismiss Southwest’s suit. Thus, the Ninth Circuit found that the presence of Community as a party was not necessary for the district court to adjudicate the case, and it remanded the case to that court for further proceedings.

[1] Endangered Species Act of 1973, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-1544 (1994).

[2] National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321-4370d (1994 & Supp. III 1997).

[3] Fed. R. Civ. P. 19.

[4] Southwest Center for Biological Diversity v. Babbitt, 150 F.3d 1152, 1153 (9th Cir. 1998).

[5] Id. at 1154.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 1155.

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