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New York’s highest court reaffirms rights of environmental plaintiffs

By: John Parker & Misti Duvall

Riverkeeper has many tools to use to achieve its mission to protect water quality and the drinking water of millions of New Yorkers. One of the most important tools is the ability to file lawsuits in Courts – sometimes to enforce our environmental laws, and sometimes to protect the rights of aggrieved individuals. Riverkeeper has a talented team of lawyers, and a close relationship with the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic, when there is a need to resort to the Courts for action.

There are many concerns and issues that must be addressed when pursuing litigation. One requirement is imposed by the Courts themselves and is called standing. The Court will not not decide a case unless it determines that the harm causing the controversy is something that it should be reviewable by the Court. The Court decisions, or precedents, on the standing question have served to limit what environmental issues can be decided by Court review. If the Court decides that it’s standing test is not met, it will dismiss the case without deciding the issues that prompted the parties to seek a ruling by the judge. Standing is an incredibly important issue, particularly to environmental organizations like Riverkeeper.

In March 2013, the Supreme Court in Steuben County New York nullified a bulk water sales agreement between the Village of Painted Post and Shell Western Exploration and Production, LP. The Village originally agreed to allow Shell to withdraw up to 1.5 million gallons of public water per day for use in hydro fracked gas operations in Pennsylvania. Riverkeeper and others were concerned with this sale of municipal water and brought a lawsuit to challenge it, ultimately succeeding when the court concluded that the Village failed to conduct the proper environmental review under New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act. This decision was appealed to the Appellate Division for another review.

Riverkeeper – in conjunction with a group of local, state and national environmental organizations – filed an amici (or friends of the court) brief in support of Sierra Club and other plaintiffs in this case. We asked the Court of Appeals to eliminate the restrictive special harm requirements that can serve to bar citizens from challenging SEQRA actions, particularly where several community members suffer the same or similar injuries.

New York’s highest Court, the New York Court of Appeals, in a long-awaited decision, further clarified the meaning of “standing to sue.” The Court’s specifically analyzed whether persons who are harmed by certain environmental actions have the right to sue in court, even if several other people suffer the same injury. The Supreme Court originally held that plaintiffs in Sierra Club v. Village of Painted Post had standing. The Court of Appeals had to decide if there was an injury that would allow the lawsuit to continue.

Under state law, citizens who wish to access the courts when they are harmed by violations of New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act must show, among other things, that they have in fact been injured, and that the injury is “different in kind or degree from the public at large.” Prior to the Court of Appeals’ decision in Painted Post, there had been confusion regarding how that test should be applied, and many lower courts employed a more restrictive test. The Courts that took the narrow approach to this question effectively barred access to anyone who suffered an injury that was shared by others in the community.

The Court of Appeals rejected the more restrictive test, and clarified that “[t]he number of people who are affected by the challenged action is not dispositive of standing.” In other words, just because other people suffer the same injury – in this case, impacts from noise – doesn’t mean that access to the courts should be denied. The Court expressed concern that such a rule would effectively insulate actions that harm a large number of people.

Riverkeeper was represented by the Columbia Environmental Law Clinic and Natural Resources Defense Council, and joined on the amici brief by Gas Free Seneca, Natural Resources Defense Council, New York Public Interest Research Group, Scenic Hudson, and Waterkeeper Alliance.

Click here to read the Court of Appeals’ decision in Sierra Club v. Village of Painted Post.

Click here to read our amici brief in support of plaintiffs.

For information on the background of the Painted Post case, please see our prior post on the lower court case and visit website of the Law Office of Rachel Treichler. – sometimes to enforce our environmental laws, and sometimes to protect the rights of aggrieved individuals. Riverkeeper has a talented team of lawyers, and a close relationship with the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic, when there is a need to resort to the Courts for action.

There are many concerns and issues that must be addressed when pursuing litigation. One requirement is imposed by the Courts themselves and is called standing. The Court will not not decide a case unless it determines that the harm causing the controversy is something that it should be reviewable by the Court. The Court decisions, or precedents, on the standing question have served to limit what environmental issues can be decided by Court review. If the Court decides that it’s standing test is not met, it will dismiss the case without deciding the issues that prompted the parties to seek a ruling by the judge. Standing is an incredibly important issue, particularly to environmental organizations like Riverkeeper.

In March 2013, the Supreme Court in Steuben County New York nullified a bulk water sales agreement between the Village of Painted Post and Shell Western Exploration and Production, LP. The Village originally agreed to allow Shell to withdraw up to 1.5 million gallons of public water per day for use in hydro fracked gas operations in Pennsylvania. Riverkeeper and others were concerned with this sale of municipal water and brought a lawsuit to challenge it, ultimately succeeding when the court concluded that the Village failed to conduct the proper environmental review under New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act. This decision was appealed to the Appellate Division for another review.

Riverkeeper – in conjunction with a group of local, state and national environmental organizations – filed an amici (or friends of the court) brief in support of Sierra Club and other plaintiffs in this case. We asked the Court of Appeals to eliminate the restrictive special harm requirements that can serve to bar citizens from challenging SEQRA actions, particularly where several community members suffer the same or similar injuries.

New York’s highest Court, the New York Court of Appeals, in a long-awaited decision, further clarified the meaning of “standing to sue.” The Court’s specifically analyzed whether persons who are harmed by certain environmental actions have the right to sue in court, even if several other people suffer the same injury. The Supreme Court originally held that plaintiffs in Sierra Club v. Village of Painted Post had standing. The Court of Appeals had to decide if there was an injury that would allow the lawsuit to continue.

Under state law, citizens who wish to access the courts when they are harmed by violations of New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act must show, among other things, that they have in fact been injured, and that the injury is “different in kind or degree from the public at large.” Prior to the Court of Appeals’ decision in Painted Post, there had been confusion regarding how that test should be applied, and many lower courts employed a more restrictive test. The Courts that took the narrow approach to this question effectively barred access to anyone who suffered an injury that was shared by others in the community.

The Court of Appeals rejected the more restrictive test, and clarified that “[t]he number of people who are affected by the challenged action is not dispositive of standing.” In other words, just because other people suffer the same injury – in this case, impacts from noise – doesn’t mean that access to the courts should be denied. The Court expressed concern that such a rule would effectively insulate actions that harm a large number of people.

Riverkeeper was represented by the Columbia Environmental Law Clinic and Natural Resources Defense Council, and joined on the amici brief by Gas Free Seneca, Natural Resources Defense Council, New York Public Interest Research Group, Scenic Hudson, and Waterkeeper Alliance.

Click here to read the Court of Appeals’ decision in Sierra Club v. Village of Painted Post.

Click here to read our amici brief in support of plaintiffs.

For information on the background of the Painted Post case, please see our prior post on the lower court case and visit website of the Law Office of Rachel Treichler.

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