Is there a statute of limitation in government Clean Water Act Cases?

April 23, 2014 Advisory

A Minnesota federal trial court recently ruled that the government can sue Clean Water Act violators even if the statute of limitations has expired. The decision opens the door for the Eighth Circuit to issue a definitive ruling that could create serious implications for environmentally regulated industries. 

At issue is whether what is known as the “concurrent remedy doctrine” allows regulators to sue defendants for equitable remedies after the statute of limitations for filing legal (monetary) claims has expired. Equitable claims are those that seek to force a defendant to stop or take certain actions, and are typically very costly for defendants to implement. 

In U.S. v. Mlaskoch, No. 10-2669, 2014 WL 1281523 (D. Minn. Mar. 31, 2014), U.S. District Judge John Tunheim granted the government’s motion for summary judgment for equitable relief against the Mlaskoch family. The government alleged that the Mlaskochs violated the Clean Water Act, despite the fact that suit was filed more than five years after the alleged violation occurred (placing the suit outside the federal default statute of limitations). The court held, however, that regardless of when the suit was filed, the governmental-enforcement exception of the concurrent remedy doctrine supported the government’s claims for equitable relief. 

The concurrent remedy doctrine provides that when “a party’s legal remedies are time-barred, that party’s concurrent equitable remedies generally are barred as well.” The federal statute of limitations, 28 U.S.C. § 2462, holds that civil actions must be brought within five years from the date when the alleged violation first occurred. Thus, traditionally, when a civil action (such as a Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act penalty case, like in Mlaskoch) is filed outside the relevant statute of limitations, and the plaintiff seeks equitable remedies in addition to legal remedies, the concurrent remedy doctrine normally would bar claims for equitable remedies including an injunction. Not exactly, according to Tunheim’s opinion. 

Citing Tenth and Eleventh Circuit cases, the judge found persuasive other courts’ rationales holding that government suits raise different interests than private plaintiffs with respect to the statute of limitations. Those courts held that the concurrent remedy doctrine does not bar suits for injunctive relief brought by the government because the federal statute of limitations only specifically precludes legal remedies and not equitable relief. Thus, Tunheim construed the statute of limitations in favor of the United States and held that its claims were not time-barred. In so holding, he departed from the Eighth Circuit’s ruling in Sierra Club v. Otter Tail Power Co., 615 F.3d 1008 (8th Cir. 2010), which barred equitable relief sought by the Sierra Club in a citizen-enforcement Clean Air Act suit. 

If the Mlaskoch case is appealed and considered by the Eighth Circuit, the resulting decision will carry the potential for expanded liability for the environmentally regulated industry. In addition, it will also represent another circuit court’s ruling in what is developing into a circuit split regarding the applicability of the concurrent remedy doctrine in environmental cases. 

For now, regulated industries in the Eighth Circuit should be on alert that environmental enforcement cases deemed foreclosed might now face the prospect of being re-opened.

Contact Us
  • Worldwide
  • Boston, MA
  • Chicago, IL
  • Denver, CO
  • Dublin, Ireland
  • Edwardsville, IL
  • Jefferson City, MO
  • Kansas City, MO
  • Las Vegas, NV
  • London, England
  • Miami, FL
  • New York, NY
  • Orange County, CA
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Princeton, NJ
  • Salt Lake City, UT
  • St. Louis, MO
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Wilmington, DE
abstract image of world map
Boston, MA
800 Boylston St.
30th Floor
Boston, MA 02199
Google Maps
Boston, Massachusetts
Chicago, IL
100 North Riverside Plaza
Suite 1500
Chicago, IL 60606-1520
Google Maps
Chicago, Illinois
Denver, CO
4643 S. Ulster St.
Suite 800
Denver, CO 80237
Google Maps
Denver, Colorado
Dublin, Ireland
Fitzwilliam Hall, Fitzwilliam Place
Dublin 2, Ireland
Google Maps
Edwardsville, IL
115 N. Second St.
Edwardsville, IL 62025
Google Maps
Edwardsville, Illinois
Jefferson City, MO
101 E. High St.
First Floor
Jefferson City, MO 65101
Google Maps
Jefferson City, Missouri
Kansas City, MO
2345 Grand Blvd.
Suite 1500
Kansas City, MO 64108
Google Maps
Kansas City, Missouri
Las Vegas, NV
7160 Rafael Rivera Way
Suite 320
Las Vegas, NV 89113
Google Maps
Las Vegas, Nevada
London, England
Royal College of Surgeons of England
38-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields
London, WC2A 3PE
Google Maps
Miami, FL
355 Alhambra Circle
Suite 1200
Coral Gables, FL 33134
Google Maps
Photo of Miami, Florida
New York, NY
7 Times Square, 44th Floor
New York, NY 10036
Google Maps
New York City skyline
Orange County, CA
19800 MacArthur Boulevard
Suite 300
Irvine, CA 92612
Google Maps
Philadelphia, PA
2005 Market Street
29th Floor, One Commerce Square
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Google Maps
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Princeton, NJ
100 Overlook Center
Second Floor
Princeton, NJ 08540
Google Maps
Princeton, New Jersey
Salt Lake City, UT
222 South Main St.
Suite 1830
Salt Lake City, UT 84101
Google Maps
Salt Lake City, Utah
St. Louis, MO
7700 Forsyth Blvd.
Suite 1800
St. Louis, MO 63105
Google Maps
St. Louis, Missouri
Washington, D.C.
1717 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Suite 400
Washington, DC 20006
Google Maps
Photo of Washington, D.C. with the Capitol in the foreground and Washington Monument in the background.
Wilmington, DE
1007 North Market Street
Wilmington, DE 19801
Google Maps
Wilmington, Delaware