March 20, 2013 United States Supreme Court opinions

Decker v Northwest Environmental Defense Center

Center sued under the Clean Water Act seeking fines and other enforcement actions against two companies which created logging roads in Oregon as storm water running off these road carried dirt and gravel into rivers and neither company had a permit to discharge pollutants into eh rivers. The district court dismissed the suit. The 9th Circuit reversed holding the permits were required. The court, 7-1 with Justice Breyer not participating, reversed. The majority held that because the Center sought to enforce regulations and not challenge them, the district court had jurisdiction over the citizen suit. The case was not mooted by revised rules adopted after the 9th Circuit decision as the enforcement action could still result in fines and attorney fee awards. Turning to the regulation, the majority held that its interpretation of the statutory phrase “associated with industrial activity” which excluded logging but included sawmills and other wood processing facilities was reasonable as it was long standing and consistent with dictionary definitions of industrial which include manufacturing but which exclude logging. Thus, the interpretation was entitled to Auer deference and the 9th Circuit decision to eh contrary was reversed. The Chief Justice, joined by Justice Alito, filed a concurrence noting that this case was not a good vehicle to revisit Auer deference because the issue was not fully briefed and argued. Justice Scalia dissented arguing that Auer deference is wrong as it lodges interpretive power in administrative agencies which properly belongs to the courts. Here, the dissent argued the agency interpretation of its own regulation was not the fairest reading as the exclusion of storm water going though ditches and pipes conflicts with the statutory definition of “point source” and, using the Standard Industrial Classifications adopted by the regulations shows that logging is an industrial activity. The dissent also argued text also demonstrates the agency’s interpretation is incorrect as the phrase relied upon does nto modify the operative terms here and the language relied upon by the majority applies to all businesses and in any event the agency knew how to write a rule which excluded the discharge here as evidenced by the rule adopted after the 9th Circuit decision which does exclude these kinds of runoffs.

Wos v E.M.A., a Minor

E.M.A.’s parent sued in federal court for a declaration that North Carolina’s Medicaid recovery statute which authorized the state to receive one-third of settlements in cases involving Medicaid receiving plaintiffs was preempted by the Medicaid law’s anti-lien provision. Relying on North Carolina Supreme Court authority holding the statue was not preempted, the district court granted judgment to the state. The 4th Circuit reversed holding the North Carolina statute was preempted. Resolving the split of authority between the state and federal decisions, the Court, 6-3, affirmed the 4th Circuit. The majority held that the statute was preempted as it set an arbitrary amount and declared and declared that amount as being received for medical services. This approach would allow a state to take all of a recovery without any type of review which the Court had earlier ruled prohibited. As the statute allowed recovery without a negotiated settlement or a judicial determination, it conflicted with the Medicaid Act and was preempted. The Court rejected North Carolina’s arguments to the contrary holding that the statute did not create special proceedings to determine the correct amount of reimbursement, does not create a general rule of tort damage recovery, is more arbitrary than other approaches, does not avoid waste and time consuming procedures and there was no binding or persuasive administrative authority that the statute complied with the Medicaid statute. Justice Breyer field a concurrences noting the agency administering Medicaid agrees with the reasoning of the court and this was persuasive to him. The Chief Justice joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas, dissented arguing that neither the Medicaid statute, the Court’s precedent nor the practice of other states requires an individualized determination of the amount owed when a Medicaid recipient recovers damages.

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