Monday, September 24, 2012

Wolfsen Land & Cattle Co. v. Pacific Coast Federation

Sep 21: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit, Case No. 2011-5113. Appealed from the United States Court of Federal Claims. The case involves a takings claim arising from the government's releases of water from a dam in central California. Downstream property owners sued in the Court of Federal Claims, alleging that the releases unlawfully impaired their property rights in the water and inundated their land.

    The Appeals Court indicates, "The government had released the water in accordance with a consent order entered by a district court and expressly approved by Congress. The consent order was the result of environmental litigation pursued over a number of years by certain groups interested in the ecological fate of the river. After the present lawsuit was filed, two of these groups moved to intervene as of right, arguing that this case implicated their interests. The Court of Federal Claims denied their motion, finding that the groups' interests were sufficiently aligned with the government's as to create no foundation for intervention. Wolfsen Land & Cattle Co. v. United States, 98 Fed. Cl. 507 (May 24, 2011) (Fed. Cl. Op.). We affirm."

    The case background started in 1942, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation dammed the upper San Joaquin River near Friant, California. Friant Dam, which still operates today, generates electricity and collects water for agriculture. But it also caused portions of the river below to dry up, leading to the extermination of Chinook salmon and other species from areas they had previously occupied, as well as other ecological consequences.

    In 1988, a group of plaintiffs sued the federal government over the dam's operation. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and the Natural Resources Defense Council (collectively, PCFFA) were among them. They claimed that the dam's operation contravened various state and Federal environmental protection laws. For the next eighteen years, the parties litigated in the district court for the Eastern District of California. In 2006, they finally reached a settlement and releases have continued since, in accordance with the Litigation Settlement and the Settlement Act.

    In the Wolfsen case, PCFFA moved to intervene and was denied and appealed. The Federal Circuit indicates, "This court has not previously identified the standard to be applied when reviewing a trial court's denial of a motion to intervene as of right. . . Both sides cite authority from the regional circuits, which are split on the question [the various cases are citied]. The majority Appeals Court rules, "We find it unnecessary to reach this question, as we see no error in the Court of Federal Claims' judgment. Cf. Am. Mar. Transp., Inc. v. United States, 870 F.2d 1559, 1561 (Fed. Cir. 1989) (finding no need to reach this issue in similar circumstances). We would affirm under both proposed standards of review. Because the question of the standard to apply is non-dispositive, we need not address it."
    The Court of Federal Claims ruled: First, the court held that PCFFA had failed to show a direct, non-contingent interest in this case. . . Second, the court held that even if PCFFA had alleged a protectable interest, the interest did not relate to this case in such a way that failure to permit intervention would impede PCFFA's ability to protect itself. . . Third, the court held that even if PCFFA had a protectable interest, and even if that interest related to this case in the manner contemplated by the rule, PCFFA's interests were adequately protected by the government's participation in this case. The majority Appeals Court ruled, "As set forth below, we agree, and on that basis affirm."
    In a separate, concurring decision, one Justice indicated, "I concur that the district court did not err in denying PCFFA's motion to intervene as a matter of right. I write separately because I do not agree that the United States -- which opposed PCFFA for years in related litigation -- can be presumed to adequately represent PCFFA in this case. . . At best, the majority has confused litigation goals with legal interests; at worst, it has unnecessarily introduced a new presumption into our cases, raising an additional bar against intervention in cases in which the government is a party."
    Access the complete opinion and separate concurrence (click here). [#Water, #CAFed]
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