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Supreme Court Determines No Presumption for Injunctive Relief in Environmental Cases


In an important decision, the United States Supreme Court today clarified the legal standard for halting actions in environmental cases. In Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, the Court determined that a nationwide permanent injunction on the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa (RRA) ordered by a lower court and upheld by the Ninth Circuit was improper. Justice Alito wrote the opinion for a seven-Justice majority.

For the second consecutive term, the Supreme Court reversed an injunction affirmed by the Ninth Circuit, and the Court again stressed the extraordinary nature of injunctive relief, even for environmental injuries. As it did in last year in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 129 S.Ct. 365 (2008), the Court in Monsanto emphasized that a plaintiff must demonstrate that it has satisfied four tests or prerequisites before an extraordinary injunction can be granted. In Monsanto, a group in non-governmental organizations sought to overturn a decision by the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) deregulating RRA under the Plant Protection Act. United States District Judge Charles Breyer granted a nationwide injunction prohibiting the planting and harvesting of RRA while APHIS undertook additional National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. (Note: Since this was Justice Breyer's brother, Justice Breyer recused himself from the appeal).

In today's decision, the majority opinion reversed the Ninth Circuit's presumption that an injunction is appropriate to remedy a NEPA violation except in "unusual" circumstances. The Monsanto decision declared that: "It is not enough for a court considering a request for injunctive relief to ask whether there is a good reason why an injunction should not issue; rather, a court must determine that an injunction should issue" under the Court's precedents.

The Supreme Court determined there can be no presumption that an injunction is the proper remedy for a NEPA violation ("No such thumb on the scales is warranted," wrote Justice Alito). Further, NEPA cases have no special exemption from application of the four-part test of eBay, Inc. v. Merc Exchange, L.L.C., 547 U.S. 388 (2006), that moving parties for injunctive relief must show (1) that they have suffered an irreparable injury; (2) that remedies available at law, such as monetary damages, are inadequate to compensate for that injury; (3) that, considering the balance of hardships between the plaintiff and defendant, a remedy in equity is warranted; and (4) that the public interest would not be disserved by a permanent injunction. "An injunction should issue only if the traditional four-factor test is satisfied," declared the Court.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit primarily because Plaintiffs had not demonstrated irreparable injury and because the breadth of the injunction intruded on APHIS's discretion with respect to some partial deregulation pending an environmental impact statement (EIS). In closing, Justice Alito stated that "If a less drastic remedy (such as partial or complete vacatur of APHIS's deregulation decision) was sufficient to redress respondents' injury, no recourse to the additional and extraordinary relief of an injunction was warranted."

The Supreme Court's decision today should reduce the number of preliminary and permanent injunctions issued in environmental cases by lower courts. The opinion requires a greater showing of irreparable harm by environmental plaintiffs when seeking to halt projects under NEPA.

Justice Stevens filed a dissenting opinion.

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