Life is Unfair: CERCLA Jurisprudence Department

When the Burlington Northern decision was first announced, I concluded that “never has the Supreme Court done so much by doing so little.” On May 5, Judge John Mendez, of he Eastern District of California, proved me at least half right. In United States v. Iron Mountain Mines, joint and several liability was imposed on the defendants in 2002. The 2002 decision stated that “given the nature of pollution at the site, it would be difficult to identify distinct harms.” The court did not analyze whether there was a reasonable basis for apportionment of liability. 

Following the Burlington Northern decision, the defendants moved for reconsideration, arguing that Burlington Northern constituted an intervening change in the law. Defendants argued that “the Supreme Court clearly meant to send a signal to other courts that they must begin evaluating apportionment in a different way.” I think that the defendants in Iron Mountain were right.  Unfortunately, that’s not the standard for a motion for reconsideration.   If Iron Mountain were being decided for the first time today, the defendants might get a better result, but that doesn’t mean that they win their motion for reconsideration.

What the Supreme Court really said in Burlington Northern isn’t that the law was wrong; it is that District Courts weren’t applying the law correctly. District court judges had their collective judicial thumbs firmly on the side of the government. The Supreme Court simply told the lower courts to take those thumbs off the scales. I hope that this decision will not encourage lower courts to keep the thumbs on the scales.

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