ANALYTICS: Environmental Matters Over the Last Two Years

Environmental lawsuits, frequently spearheaded by advocacy organizations trying to protect the enjoyment of wildlife and endangered animals, are filed fairly consistently in federal court according to Docket Alarm analytics. The data shows that filings under the Environmental Matters PACER Nature of Suit tag occurred an average of 1.3 times each day during the last two years. 

These environmental lawsuits are filed fairly consistently although there are some spikes, and the lawsuits tend to lag in November of both years.  There was a dip in litigation between March and June 2020, likely connected to the COVID-19 pandemic-related shutdowns. Filings picked up by the end of summer with 52 filings in August. Overall, there have been 954 federal lawsuits filed under the Environmental Matters case tag since the beginning of 2019. 

Federal environmental complaints are focused in California, with the state holding three of the top four courts for amounts of filings.  The California Northern District Court has had the most filings with 97 environmental complaints filed in the court since the beginning of 2019. The Central District of California, the District of Columbia District Court, and the California Eastern District each received between 50 and 70 complaints, and District Courts in Montana, western Washington, and eastern Louisiana have received over 30 complaints. 

The Plaintiffs

The most common party in these environmental lawsuits is the United States of America, the country has been involved in 227 lawsuits, and is a plaintiff in the large majority of those cases.  These lawsuits cite a variety of causes, but the most frequent include seeking recovery of cleanup expenses and violations of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the Clean Air Act (CAA), and the Water Act (CWA). 

More often than other plaintiffs, the United States is filing the lawsuit to ask the court to require businesses, or jurisdictions within the country to help cover the costs the nation spent to clean the environment after a situation that needs quick attention. 

The Center for Biological Diversity was the top-filing environmental advocacy organization during the last two years.  Its filings vary between one and twelve a month, with an average of one lawsuit filed a week. Over the last two years the center filed 111 lawsuits under the Environmental Matters tag in federal court.  Most often, it represents itself but there are some lawsuits where it is one of many plaintiffs and a separate advocacy organization represents all of the plaintiffs; the most common organization representing the Center for Biological Diversity is EarthJustice. 

This plaintiff cites its mission as “saving life on earth,” and most of its lawsuits are under the Endangered Species Act. Their website says, “we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.” 

In addition to citing the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Center for Biological Diversity also frequently cites the Administrative Procedure Act in lawsuits filed against the United States or federal organizations. These lawsuits purport that the United States Forest Service, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, or other federal organizations are not taking the proper steps to ensure that the environment is being protected. 

Another common instigator of environmental complaints is the Sierra Club, which was the plaintiff in over 50 lawsuits with the environmental matters tag over the last two years. The Sierra Club has a much wider range of representation. It represented itself in eight of the lawsuits and was represented more frequently by EarthJustice and the Center for Biological Diversity. 

The Sierra Club is involved in an average of two filings each month in this category, although when other categories, such as administrative and civil, are considered the environmental organization is much more litigious. It has been involved in 227 lawsuits over the last two years and files an average of over two new lawsuits a week. 

While these are just a few of the environmental advocacy groups that frequently appear in litigation, they represent just a portion of environmental litigation nationwide.

The Defendants

The most common defendants by far in environmental matters lawsuits are federal government organizations and individuals associated with them. This includes the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Agency, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Department of the Interior. 

The most commonly named individual defendant in federal environmental lawsuits during the last two years is David Bernhardt, the United States Secretary of the Interior.  He is named as a defendant in 124 federal lawsuits, just over 1/8th of the environmental lawsuits filed under the Environmental Matters tag. He is represented by the United States Department of Justice in most of the lawsuits against him, and occasionally by another law firm in lawsuits where there are multiple defendants. 

According to Docket Alarm’s data, states who are involved in multiple environmental lawsuits are more frequently the plaintiff rather than the defendant. Some states, including California and Maryland, were the plaintiff in all of the environmental lawsuits they were involved in. 

Although many lawsuits are filed against companies who are accused of breaching permit laws or otherwise letting more pollutants into the environment than federal laws allow, individuals, and smaller government bodies like cities and these defendants typically received only one lawsuit in the last two years according to Docket Alarm data. A large majority of the parties listed by Docket Alarm as being involved in Environmental Matters lawsuits are only a party in one lawsuit out of the total of almost 1,000. 

Some larger companies in the agriculture or energy fields received between one and ten complaints against them over the last two years. For example, E.I. Du Pont received seven environmental complaints in federal courts over the time period, and did not initiate any environmental complaints, however, BASF had a similar number of lawsuits but was the defendant in about half of them. Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips each received about four environmental matters complaints over the last two years. 

BP Exploration & Production was the most common party that was not a federal government organization, It was involved in 25 filings, but each occurred in or before February 2020 and half of them occurred in the first three months of 2019.  BP was the defendant in 59 percent of its lawsuits, many of which were related to clean up expenses after the company was involved in an oil spill. All of the company’s environmental matters lawsuits were held under Judge Carl Barbier in the Louisiana Eastern District Court, who oversees six additional lawsuits and is the judge overseeing the most lawsuits under this tag. 

Environmental lawsuits seem to frequently involve the government. Sometimes the government is filing a lawsuit to hold businesses and jurisdictions accountable, like their lawsuit filed against Toyota recently. Other times, advocacy organizations file a lawsuit against the government arguing that it has not adequately enforced the laws, this is especially frequent with Endangered Species Act complaints. Environmental Matters lawsuits are filed consistently over the last two years. Time will tell if the upcoming change in administration or long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will change this pattern. For now, it seems that businesses will continue to push boundaries of permits, government agencies will continue to litigate, and environmental organizations will continue to push the government to act more boldly.

The analytics in this article are powered by One-Click Analytics from Docket Alarm. To learn more, schedule a demo with the Docket Alarm team.