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Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Envtl. Servs. (TOC), Inc.

Supreme Court of the United States

October 12, 1999, Argued ; January 12, 2000, Decided

No. 98-822


 [*173]  [***622]  [**700]    JUSTICE GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.

 This case presents an important question concerning the operation of the citizen-suit provisions of the Clean Water Act. Congress authorized the federal district courts to entertain Clean Water Act suits initiated by "a person or persons having an interest which is or may be adversely affected." 33 U.S.C. §§ 1365(a), (g). To impel future compliance with the Act, a district court may prescribe injunctive relief in such a suit; additionally or alternatively, the court may impose civil penalties payable to the United States Treasury. § 1365(a). In the Clean Water Act citizen suit now before us, the District Court determined that injunctive relief was inappropriate because the defendant, after the institution of the litigation, achieved substantial compliance [****14]  with the terms of its discharge permit. 956 F. Supp. 588, 611 (SC 1997). The court did, however, assess a civil penalty of $ 405,800. 956 F. Supp. at 610. The "total deterrent effect" of the penalty would be adequate to forestall future violations, the court reasoned, taking into account that the defendant "will be required to reimburse plaintiffs for a significant amount of legal fees and has, itself, incurred significant legal expenses." 956 F. Supp. at 610-611.

The Court of Appeals vacated the District Court's order. 149 F.3d 303 (CA4 1998). The case became moot, the appellate court declared, once the defendant fully complied with the terms of its permit and the plaintiff failed to appeal the denial of equitable relief. "Civil penalties payable to the government," the Court of Appeals stated, "would not redress any injury Plaintiffs have suffered." Id. at 307. Nor were attorneys' fees in order, the Court of Appeals noted, because absent relief on the merits, plaintiffs could not qualify as prevailing parties. Id. at 307, n. 5.

 We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals. The appellate court erred [****15]  in concluding that a citizen suitor's claim for civil penalties must be dismissed as moot when the  [*174]  defendant, albeit after commencement of the litigation, has come into compliance. In directing dismissal of the suit on grounds of mootness, the Court of Appeals incorrectly conflated our case law on initial standing to bring suit, see, e.g., Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment, 523 U.S. 83, 140 L. Ed. 2d 210, 118 S. Ct. 1003 (1998), with our case law on post-commencement mootness, see, e.g., City of Mesquite  [***623]  v. Aladdin's Castle, Inc., 455 U.S. 283, 71 L. Ed. 2d 152, 102 S. Ct. 1070 (1982). ] A defendant's voluntary cessation of allegedly unlawful conduct ordinarily does not suffice to moot a case. The Court of Appeals also misperceived the remedial potential of civil penalties. Such penalties may serve, as an alternative to an injunction, to deter future violations and thereby redress the injuries that prompted a citizen suitor to commence litigation.

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528 U.S. 167 *; 120 S. Ct. 693 **; 145 L. Ed. 2d 610 ***; 2000 U.S. LEXIS 501 ****; 2000 Cal. Daily Op. Service 289; 2000 Daily Journal DAR 375; 30 ELR 20246; 49 ERC (BNA) 1769; 163 A.L.R. Fed. 749; 1999 Colo. J. C.A.R. 142; 13 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 37



Disposition: 149 F.3d 303, reversed and remanded.


mootness, civil penalty, district court, pollutants, violations, redress, river, citizen suit, deterrence, discharges, speculative, injunction, injunctive relief, deter, deterrent effect, injury in fact, environmental, compliance, limits, future violations, cessation, lawsuit, cases, lack standing, recreational, damages, mercury, ongoing, declaratory, remediation

Civil Procedure, Justiciability, Mootness, Voluntary Cessation Exception, General Overview, Standing, Environmental Law, Enforcement, Citizen Suits, Grounds for Citizen Suits, Pleadings, Complaints, Water Quality, Preliminary Considerations, Remedies, Injunctions, Permanent Injunctions