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United States v. Gibson Wine Co.

United States District Court, E.D. California

March 20, 2017

GIBSON WINE CO., Defendant.


         I. Introduction

         The United States Environmental Protection Agency (“United States” or “Government”) brought the instant environmental protection action against Gibson Wine Company (“Gibson”) related to Gibson's winemaking activities in Sanger, California. This action proceeds on the Government's First Amended Complaint (“FAC”), filed on December 1, 2016. On December 13, 2016, Gibson filed a motion to strike portion of the Government's first and second causes of action and the entirety of the Government's third cause of action. Gibson contends that many of the Government's allegations are premised on inapplicable regulatory authority and now-vacated findings by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (“DOSH”).

         The United States responds that Gibson's motion is not the appropriate subject of a motion to strike-the motion seeks dismissal of three of the Government's four causes of action and injects factual allegations that conflict with the allegations of the complaint. The United States contends, even if the Court were to hear the substance of the claims despite Gibson's use of the incorrect procedural vehicle, Gibson's arguments are without merit.

         In Gibson's reply, it disclaims any intent to challenge the legal sufficiency of the Government's complaint. It further explains that its reference to factual material outside of the complaint “is solely for the purpose of explaining the significance of the accurate statement of statutory defenses and elements of” the Government's claims. Doc. 48 at 2. Gibson asks that its motion only be considered as a motion to strike pursuant to Rule 12(f).

         For the following reasons, Gibson's motion to strike will be denied.

         II. Background

         This Court summarized the allegations of the Government's original complaint in its April 25, 2016 order. Doc. 21. In short, the Court explained the alleged release of anhydrous ammonia from the Gibson facility and the Government's three original corresponding causes of action.

         Gibson's winemaking facility in Sanger, California, uses refrigeration systems requiring the storage and use of anhydrous ammonia. The United States alleges that on September 11, 2012, the Gibson facility experienced a 284-pound release of anhydrous ammonia from its refrigeration system. A cloud of the ammonia formed and the facility was evacuated. One of Gibson's contract employees died from exposure to the ammonia.

         The Government's three original causes of action were as follows: (1) violation of the general duty clause of Section 112(r)(1) of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), 42 U.S.C. § 7412(r)(1), premised on Gibson's alleged failure to meet ten requirements relating to ammonia storage and use; (2) violation of Section 103 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA”), 42 U.S.C. § 9603, based on delayed notification of the National Response Center (“NRC”) after the alleged release of ammonia in a reportable quantity; and (3) violation of Section 304 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act (“EPCRA”), 42 U.S.C. § 11004(a)(1), based on delayed notification of the State Emergency Response Commission (“SERC”) after the alleged release of ammonia in a reportable quantity. After the Court's April 25, 2016 order, the Government amended its complaint. See Docs. 35 (granting unopposed motion to amend), and 36 (Government's FAC). The three claims that the Court previously detailed were re-alleged, and the Government alleged a fourth cause of action (that it inserted as its first cause of action)-violation of the Risk Management Plan (“RMP”) regulations established under Section 112(r)(7) of the CAA, applicable only to facilities storing regulated substances exceeding a threshold amount, (to wit, 10, 000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia) based on alleged failures to meet nine requirements relating to ammonia storage and use, different from the ten failures alleged under the general duty clause of Section 112(r)(1) of the CAA.

         The Government's first cause of action, violation of the RMP regulations of Section 112(r)(7) of the CAA is applicable only if it can show that Gibson operated a process involving the use of anhydrous ammonia in an amount exceeding 10, 000 pounds. See 40 C.F.R. §§ 68.1, 68.10, 68.115, 68.130. The Government's section cause of action, violation of the General Duty Clause of Section 112(r)(1) of the CAA applies if Gibson used any amount of anhydrous ammonia at its facility. See 42 U.S.C. § 7412(r)(1); 40 C.F.R. § 68.1 (“[T]hreshold quantities[] and accident prevention regulations promulgated under this part do not limit … the general duty provisions under [S]ection 112(r)(1).”)

         III. Legal Standard

         A. Motion to Strike

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f), a court may strike “any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter.” A matter is “redundant” if it presents “the needless repetition of allegations or the inclusion of allegations that ‘are foreign to the issue.'” Lexington Ins. Co v. Energetic Lath & Plaster, Inc., 2015 WL 5436784, *10 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 15, 2015) (quoting Wilkerson v. Butler, 229 F.R.D. 166, 170 (E.D.Cal.2005)). A matter is immaterial if it has “no essential or important relationship to the claim for relief or the defenses being pleaded.” Fantasy, Inc. v. Fogerty, 984 F.2d 1524, 1527 (9th Cir. 1993). A matter is impertinent if it “consists of statements that do not pertain, and are not necessary, to the issues in question.” Fogerty, 984 F.2d at 1527. A matter is scandalous if it improperly casts a derogatory light on a party to the action. Lexinton Ins. Co., 2015 WL 5436784 at *10. If an allegation does not fall within one of those categories it is not appropriately stricken under Rule 12(f).

         The purpose of Rule 12(f) is to “avoid the expenditure of time and money that … arise[s] from litigating spurious issues by dispensing with those issues prior to trial.” Sidney -Vinstein v. A.H.Robins Co., 697 F.2d 880, 885 (9th Cir. 1983); accord Whittlestone, Inc. v. Handi-Craft Co., 618 F.3d 970, 973 (9th Cir. 2010). However, because of the limited importance of pleadings in federal practice and because motions to strike often needlessly extend litigation, broad motions to strike are generally disfavored. See Andren v. Alere, Inc., 2017 WL 168605, *3 (S.D. Cal. Jan. 17, 2016); Kratz Aerial Ag Service, Inc. v. Slykerman, 2016 WL 1090361, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 21, 2017) (citing Spring v. Fair Isaac Corp., 2015 WL 7188234, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Nov. 16, 2015)); Atcherley v. Hanna, 2016 WL 70028, at *1 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 6, 2016) (citation omitted). Such motions should not be granted “unless it is clear that the matter to be stricken could have no possible bearing on the subject matter of the proceedings.” Andren, 2017 WL 168605 at *3 (quoting Colaprico v. Sun Microsys. Inc., 758 F.Supp. 1335, 1339 (N.D. Cal. 1991)); see Park v. Welch Foods, Inc., 2014 WL 1231035, *1 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 20, 2014) (“Any doubt concerning the import of the allegations to be stricken weighs in favor of denying the motion to strike.”) (quoting In re Walmart Stores, Inc. Wage & Hour Litig., 505 F.Supp.2d 609, 614 (N.D. Cal. 2007)).

         In ruling on a motion to strike, much like ruling on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a court must assume that all of the well-pled factual allegations of the complaint are true and view the pleading in the light most favorable to the pleader. See Whittlestone, 618 F.3d at 973 (“[C]ourts may not resolve ‘disputed and substantial factual or legal issues in deciding a motion to strike.'”); Lexington Ins. Co. v. Energetic Lath & Plaster, Inc., 2015 WL 5436784, *11 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 15, 2015); Patterson v. Two Fingers LLC, 2015 WL 2345658, *3 (D. Ariz. May 15, 2015); Holmes v. Elec. Document Processing, Inc., 966 F.Supp.2d 925, 930 (N.D. Cal. 2013). A motion to strike does not test the substantive sufficiency of a pleading. See Yamamoto v. Omiya, 564 F.2d 1319, 1327 (9th Cir. 1977) (“Rule 12(f) is neither an authorized nor a proper way to procure the dismissal of all or a part of a complaint.”) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); Granger v. Lowe's Home Centers, LLC, 2014 WL 4976134, *3 (E.D. Cal. Oct. 3, 2014). However, insofar as a motion incorrectly designated a motion to strike could have been properly brought as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a court may construe it as such. Knapp v., Inc., 2016 WL 3268995, *6 (N.D. Cal. June 15, 2016); Granger, 2014 WL 4976134 at *3; Rhodes v. Placer County, 2011 WL 1302240, *22 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 31, 2011). Similarly, if a party improperly submits evidence in support of a motion to strike, the court may construe that motion as a motion for summary judgment. See Mullane v. Hilton Hotels Corp, 634 F.Supp.2d 1130, 1157 (D. Haw. 2009) (citing 5C Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1380, at 404 (3d ed. 2004)). A court should only consider the underlying merits of an improperly designated motion if construing the motion in that manner would not deprive the non-moving party of a meaningful opportunity to respond. See Ewing v. Megrdle, 2014 WL 2159363, *18 (C.D. Cal. May 23, 2014) (refusing to address the merits of a motion filed using an improper procedural vehicle because the non-moving party had no meaningful opportunity to respond); Garcia v. Valenzuela, 2014 WL 683795, *1 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 18, 2014) (hearing the merits of claims filed using an improper procedural vehicle only after affording the non-moving party an additional opportunity to respond).

         B. Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim

         A complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Where the plaintiff fails to allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, ” the complaint may be dismissed for failure to allege facts sufficient to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). “A claim has facial plausibility, ” and thus survives a motion to dismiss, “when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 663 (2009). On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the court accepts all material facts alleged in the complaint as true and construes them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1072 (9th Cir. 2005). However, the court need not accept conclusory allegations, allegations contradicted by exhibits attached to the complaint or matters properly subject to judicial notice, unwarranted deductions of fact or unreasonable inferences. Daniels-Hall v. National Educ. Ass'n, 629 F.3d 992, 998 (9th Cir. 2010).

         IV. Discussion A. Gibson's First Motion to Strike - The Government's Allegations Regarding Statutory and Regulatory Framework

         Gibson's first motion asks the Court to strike paragraphs 19, 22, and 23 of the FAC. Doc. 39-1 at 4-6.[1] Those paragraphs are all part of the Government's explanation of the statutory and regulatory framework of the CAA. Paragraph 19 reads:

“Process” is defined in 40 C.F.R. § 68.3 to mean “any activity involving a regulated substance including any use, storage, manufacturing, handling, or on-site movement of such substances, or any combination of these activities.” “Covered Process” means “a process that has a regulated hazardous substance present in more than a threshold quantity as determined under [40 C.F.R.] § 68.115.” 40 C.F.R. § 68.3.

         FAC at ¶ 19. Gibson takes issue with the Government's omission of part of 40 C.F.R. § ...

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