Law School Case Brief
United States v. Atl. Research Corp. - 551 U.S. 128, 127 S. Ct. 2331 (2007)
In light of the relationship between 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 9607(a)(4)(A) and (B) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, it is natural to read the phrase "any other person" in § 9607(a)(4)(B) by referring to the immediately preceding § 9607(a)(4)(A), which permits suit only by the United States, a state, or an Indian tribe. The phrase "any other person" therefore means any person other than those three. 42 U.S.C.S. § 9601(21) defines "person" to include the United States and the various states. Consequently, the plain language of 42 U.S.C.S. § 9607(a)(4)(B) authorizes cost-recovery actions by any private party, including potentially responsible parties.
Plaintiff Atlantic Research Corporation ("Atlantic") retrofitted rocket motors for defendant United States from 1981 through 1986. It performed this service on premises it leased from United States Department of Defense. The work included using high-pressure water spray to remove rocket propellant. Once removed, the propellant was burned. Residue from burnt rocket fuel contaminated the site's soil and groundwater. Atlantic voluntarily investigated and cleaned up the contamination, incurring costs in the process. Atlantic then filed a lawsuit against the United States in federal district court seeking to recover a portion of the clean-up costs pursuant to, inter alia, §§ 107(a) and 113(f) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 9607(a) and 9613(f). The United States filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court granted. On appeal, the court of appeals reversed, holing that § 107(a)(4)(B) provided a cause of action to Atlantic Research. The United States was granted a writ of certiorari.
Did the court of appeals err in holding that § 113(f) of CERCLA was not the exclusive remedy for recovering cleanup costs and that § 107(a)(4)(B) provided a cause of action to any person other than those permitted to sue under § 107(a)(4)(A)?
The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the court of appeals' decision. The Court held that because § 107(a)(4)(B)'s plain terms allow a PRP to recover costs from other PRPs, the statute provided Atlantic with a cause of action. The Court found that § 9607(a)(4)(B) provided a cause of action for cost recovery to anyone other than the United States, a state, or an Indian tribe; any private party, including a PRP, could therefore bring an action under § 9607(a)(4)(B). A cost recovery action under § 9607(a) was distinct from and complimentary to an action for contribution under 42 U.S.C.S. § 9613(f)(1), which could only be brought during or following a suit under 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 9606 or 9607(a). Allowing PRPs to bring cost recovery actions did not mean that PRPs could circumvent the shorter limitations period for contribution actions, and a PRP against whom a § 9607(a) action was brought could avoid inequitable apportionment of costs by filing a 42 U.S.C.S. § 9613(f) counterclaim.
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