Thursday, February 3, 2011

Chico Service Station, Inc. v. Sol Puerto Rico Ltd.

Jan 26: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit, Case No. 10-1200. Appealed from the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico, San Juan. As explained by the Appeals Court, "This appeal requires us to assess the propriety of Burford abstention in a citizen suit under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Appellants Chico Service Station, Inc. and José Chico brought the suit in an effort to force the cleanup of contamination caused by leaking underground storage tanks (USTs) at a former gasoline filling station. Their citizen suit represents the latest in a long-running series of proceedings aimed at addressing contamination at the site. In addition to an investigatory proceeding at the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (EQB) that has been ongoing since leaks were discovered in the early 1990s, appellants have filed two lawsuits in commonwealth courts over the past decade related to the contamination of the site."
    The Appeals Court said, "The pendency of these parallel state administrative proceedings led the district court to abstain from hearing the appellants' federal citizen suit, ordering dismissal on the authority of Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943). Application of the Burford abstention doctrine to RCRA citizen suits is an issue of first impression in this circuit. On careful
consideration, we find abstention to be inappropriate, and we therefore vacate the district court's judgment."

    In summary the Appeals Court said, "The circumstances that can sustain a federal court's abstention from the duty to exercise jurisdiction are rare. This is particularly true for citizen suits brought under RCRA. In light of the important federal interests at stake and the care with which Congress delineated the situations in which RCRA citizen suits will be barred, only exceptional circumstances could justify abstention. Because such circumstances are not present here, the district court erred in abstaining. Moreover, we conclude that neither the diligent prosecution bar nor mootness can independently support the district court's dismissal of Chico's suit. We must therefore vacate the judgment of the district court. Costs shall be awarded to the appellants."

    Access the complete opinion (click here).

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