WASHINGTON - Ruling in a case involving a Chicago steel processing company, the Supreme Court made it harder Wednesday for citizens' groups to sue companies that violated certain environmental laws.
The decision came as a blow to Citizens for a Better Environment, which had sued the Southeast Side company after it failed to file reports on toxic substances as required by federal law. In its ruling, the court said Citizens for a Better Environment had no right to sue because the company, known as Steel Co. and Chicago Steel & Pickling Co., filed the required reports after the group notified it of its lapses.
As a result, the court said, the group's subsequent lawsuit was improper because the company no longer was violating the law.
"Basically, a private citizen can't say, 'I'm upset that another private citizen violated the law and, even though they're in full compliance now, I want them to pay a penalty to the government," said Tom Daggett, a lawyer representing the company.
James Brusslan, a lawyer for Citizens for a Better Environment, predicted that the ruling would have a broad impact because citizens' groups would be less vigilant about urging companies to comply with environmental laws if they couldn't sue to recover expenses.
"This will stall Congress' efforts to clean our environment," Brusslan said. "There will be less citizen enforcement."
At issue was a federal statute called the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which requires businesses to file yearly reports if they release toxic substances. The law contains a provision allowing citizens groups to sue for violations after they notify the company of them. Courts have split, however, on whether a lawsuit is proper if the company corrects the violation before the suit is filed.
The court Wednesday resolved that issue in Steel Co.'s favor, vacating a federal appeals court decision in Chicago.
The Supreme Court said the group did not deserve a day in court because it couldn't point to
a remedy it was entitled to. Fines for violating the law, for instance, would go to the U.S.
Treasury. And its request for attorney's fees was inappropriate, the court said, because it had no
business suing in the first place.