Court Rebuffs Buffer

The 11TH amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which generally forbids legal actions by citizens against a state, does not bar an environmental justice lawsuit against state environmental officials, according to a ruling by a federal appeals court.

Holly Springs, N.C., has the largest percentage of African-Americans of any locality in Wake County. Although the area has less than 2 percent of the county's population, the community “has long borne a disproportionate share of Wake County's landfills,” the court observed.

In the early 1990s, the county decided to create a new landfill in Holly Springs. It submitted a site application to the state environmental agency and began acquiring property for the proposed 470-acre operation. After the state formally declared the site suitable for the landfill, the county applied for a construction permit. In early 1999, the county received its permit.

Area residents promptly challenged the issuance of the permit in state administrative proceedings, asserting that the county and state did their best to prevent meaningful public participation in the process and, among other violations of state law, failed to consider alternative sites and demographic data. While this matter was pending, the residents filed suit in federal district court, seeking an injunction against county and state officials to halt landfill construction.

The plaintiffs alleged that the county “has long engaged in a pattern of intentional discrimination in the siting of undesirable landfills near predominantly African-American communities” and that the state was similarly guilty by permitting sites for landfills “near areas primarily occupied by minorities.” The complaint concluded that the county and state actions violated the federal Civil Rights Act, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and state law.

The district court dismissed the case, concluding that the claims were untimely and that state defendants enjoyed sovereign immunity from prosecution under the 11th Amendment. However, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's principal findings and reinstated the plaintiffs' main claims.

First, federal claims are governed by the state's three-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions, which was triggered by the state's issuance of the construction permit in 1999 — not in the early '90s (when the project got underway) as the district court had ruled.

“[I]t would have been premature for the plaintiffs to file their complaint in the early 1990s, or at any time prior to [permit issuance],” the appeals court said. “[The plaintiffs] filed their complaint less than three years later … and hence it was timely.”

Second, the defendants were not entitled to sovereign immunity. Generally, sovereign immunity protects a state from being sued by one of its citizens without its consent. However, under a long-standing legal doctrine, a private citizen may ask a federal court to prevent state officials from engaging in future conduct that would violate federal law.

[Franks v. Ross, No. 01-2354, 4th Cir., Dec. 4, 2002.]

The columnist is a Washington, D.C., attorney and serves as general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

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