A Tennessee federal district court recently awarded a defendant summary judgment on multiple Clean Water Act claims because they were time-barred under the “concurrent-remedies” doctrine. Relying on case law from the Fifth Circuit holding that the concurrent-remedies doctrine is “alive, well, and strong” as applied to private plaintiffs, the court held that the plaintiff’s claims were barred in their entirety with respect to all legal and equitable relief based on the expiration of the limitations period applicable to claims for civil penalties. Starlink Logistics Inc. v. ACC, LLC, No. 1:18-CV-00029, 2023 WL 1456179 (M.D. Tenn. Jan. 31, 2023).
In particular, although 28 U.S.C. § 2642 imposes a five-year statute of limitations on Clean Water Act claims for civil penalties, the plaintiff argued that its separate claims for legal and equitable relief were not barred. The court disagreed. The court quoted a 2018 Clean Air Act case in which the Fifth Circuit explained that “to allow equitable claims to proceed where the legal claims are time barred is counter-intuitive to general legal thought and reasoning.” “Concurrent” goes beyond whether the claims are contemporaneous, and instead “encompasses topical (factual) connotations.” Civil penalties and equitable relief are concurrent when they are brought “on the same facts.” Courts have held that the doctrine does not apply to concurrent remedies sought by the federal government.
The district court accepted “the Fifth Circuit’s evaluation of the prevailing status of the concurrent-remedies doctrine,” and its “own research” revealed “nothing indicating that such evaluation ha[d] been undermined by the relatively short passage of time since [that case was decided in] 2018 or anything in Sixth Circuit case law.” Although the court acknowledged that one district court in another circuit held that the concurrent-remedies doctrine does not apply where requested remedies have “different goals and effects,” it rejected that reasoning, explaining that contrary precedent was more “persuasive and not undercut in any way by any subsequent legal authority.”
As the district court explained: “There is no question that Plaintiff not only ‘could,’ but in this case did, bring a claim that simultaneously sought both legal relief (civil penalties) and equitable relief based on the same facts.” The district court found that, under these circumstances, the plaintiff’s requests for equitable and declaratory relief were barred under the concurrent-remedies doctrine.
Because some of the plaintiff’s non-Clean Water Act claims survived summary judgment, the plaintiff’s appeal, if any, of the court’s decision likely must wait until after resolution of the remaining claims. In the meantime, the court’s decision highlights an important potential defense that may be available to defendants being sued by private plaintiffs for both legal and equitable relief on environmental claims.