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Center For Biological Diversity v. Pruitt

United States District Court, N.D. California

August 31, 2017

SCOTT PRUITT, Defendant. Re: Dkt. No. 40



         Before the court is defendant Scott Pruitt's motion for relief from the Consent Decree. Dkt. 40. The matter is fully briefed and is to be decided on the papers pursuant to a prior order of the court. Dkt. 39. Having read the parties' papers and carefully considered their arguments and the relevant legal authority, and good cause appearing, the court hereby DENIES the motion.


         This is a closed environmental law case involving air quality requirements, brought pursuant to § 304(a)(2) of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”). On July 21, 2016, plaintiffs the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Environmental Health, and the Clean Air Council (collectively, “plaintiffs”) brought this action against Gina McCarthy, in her capacity as the Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”). The current Administrator, Scott Pruitt, has since been substituted as the defendant following the change in administration.

         Plaintiffs alleged that EPA failed to perform non-discretionary duties required by the CAA in relation to the 2008 National Ambient Air Quality Standards (“NAAQS”) for ozone. See Dkt. 27, First Amended Complaint (“FAC”) ¶ 1. Once EPA promulgates the NAAQS, the CAA requires that EPA designate areas of the country as in compliance (“attainment”) or not in compliance (“nonattainment”). FAC ¶ 16. Each state is required to submit state implementation plans (“SIPs”) to ensure that it meets the NAAQS.

         If a state or area fails to submit a SIP, EPA must make that determination and publish notice of it on the Federal Register, a process called a “finding of failure to submit.” FAC ¶ 20. Once a region submits a SIP, EPA must make a determination as to whether or not that SIP is “administratively complete” within 6 months. FAC ¶ 19. EPA must then either approve or disapprove the SIP within one year. FAC ¶ 21.

         Plaintiffs alleged that EPA did not perform these duties in a timely manner. The FAC brought two causes of action. The first claim alleged that EPA has failed to make a “finding of failure to submit” with respect to certain regions. FAC ¶¶ 30-35. The second claim alleged that the SIPs submitted by other regions were “deemed administratively complete” by law after six months, but EPA has failed to make any determination approving or disapproving the SIP within a year, as required by law. FAC ¶¶ 36-42.

         On January 19, 2017, the court granted the parties' joint motion to enter a Revised Consent Decree. Dkt. 32 (the “Consent Decree”). As relevant to this motion, paragraph 3.n. of the Consent Decree requires EPA to take a final action, by September 29, 2017, on Delaware's SIP regarding (i) the Ozone Transport Region Reasonable Available Control Technology (RACT) Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) for Major Sources, and (ii) the RACT Non-Control Technique Guidelines (CTG) Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) for Major Sources.

         Stated more plainly, the Consent Decree requires that EPA approve, disapprove, or conditionally approve Delaware's plan to use reasonably available technologies to control major sources of nitrogen oxides and other volatile organic compounds by September 29, 2017.

         On July 28, 2017, plaintiffs filed an administrative motion requesting that the court hold a telephonic status conference because it appeared that EPA would not be able to comply with this deadline in the Consent Decree. Dkt. 36. The court granted the motion and held a telephonic status conference on August 7, 2017. Dkt. 38. Following the conference, the court ordered EPA to file a motion for an extension of the deadline, which is now fully briefed and ripe for decision.


         A. Legal Standard

         Because an approved consent decree represents a judgment of the court, a party seeking relief from its terms must establish one of the grounds identified in Federal Rule of Procedure 60(b). Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk Cty. Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 378 (1992). Here, EPA seeks relief from the judgment because “applying [the consent decree] prospectively is no longer equitable, ” as well as “any other reason that justifie[s] relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(5)-(6). Rule 60(b)(5) “provides a means by which a party can ask a court to modify or vacate a judgment or order if a significant change either in factual conditions or in law renders continued enforcement detrimental to the public interest.” Horne v. Flores, 557 U.S. 433, 447 (2009) (quotations omitted).

         There is two-part standard for modifying a consent decree under Rule 60(b)(5). First, the “party seeking modification of a consent decree bears the burden of establishing that a significant change in circumstances warrants revision of the decree.” Rufo, 502 U.S. at 383. If this “heavy burden” is met, the “district court must then determine whether the proposed modification is suitably tailored to resolve the problems created by the changed factual or legal conditions.” United States v. Asarco Inc., 430 F.3d 972, 979-80 (9th Cir. 2005). A court abuses its discretion when it ...

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