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Court’s discretion to issue injunction for NEPA violation limited

Laurie Williams is a summer associate at Akin Gump.

Yesterday in Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms (No. 09-475), the Court held that the district court abused its discretion when it enjoined a federal agency from deregulating a plant pending the completion of an environmental review.   [You can read Josh Patashnik’s oral argument preview here.]  Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, which was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor.  Justice Stevens dissented, while Justice Breyer did not participate in the case.

Under the Plant Protection Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has authority to prevent “the introduction of plant pests into the United States.” The USDA has delegated rulemaking power under this provision to one of its divisions, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). APHIS’s regulations presume that genetically modified plants are “pests” unless it determines otherwise – a decision that must be made in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), which requires an environmental impact statement (EIS) unless an interim environmental assessment (EA) finds that the deregulation will not have a significant impact on the environment.

Petitioner Monsanto Company asked APHIS to deregulate Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA), a genetically modified alfalfa crop. After preparing an EA, APHIS granted Monsanto’s petition, finding that deregulation would not have a significant impact on the environment. The respondents in this case – conventional alfalfa farms and environmental groups – filed this suit.  The district court agreed with the respondents that APHIS’s actions had violated NEPA, and it subsequently (1) vacated APHIS’s deregulation decision; (2) ordered the agency to prepare an EIS before it ruled on Monsanto’s deregulation petition; and (3) enjoined virtually all planting of RRA until the agency could finish the EIS.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

In its opinion reversing the decision of the Ninth Circuit, the Court began by holding that both parties had standing to pursue their claims. Petitioners were injured because they could not sell RRA until APHIS completed the EIS, and their injury could be redressed by a favorable ruling, thus satisfying constitutional standing requirements. Respondents also had standing, because the substantial risk of gene flow injured them by increasing their costs and requiring them to take steps to minimize risks of contamination.

After also making clear that the traditional four-factor test applied in cases involving NEPA violations, the Court then turned to the central question: whether the district court had abused its discretion when it both enjoined APHIS from partially deregulating RRA pending the completion of the EIS and prohibited most planting of RRA.  The Court held that it had.

First, the Court explained that the district court’s injunction improperly prohibited any partial deregulation. Once the District Court determined that APHIS’s original complete deregulation of RRA was procedurally invalid, it was then for APHIS to decide whether it would partially deregulate RRA; if it opted to do so, that decision could be challenged in a separate action. Thus, although the district court could decline to adopt the judgment proposed by APHIS – which would have authorized a partial deregulation – it lacked authority to enjoin a partial deregulation that had not yet occurred.  “Until APHIS actually seeks to effect a partial deregulation,” the Court explained, “any judicial review of such a decision is premature.”

Second, the Court continued, injunctive relief was inappropriate because respondents could not show that they would suffer irreparable injury if APHIS proceeded with a partial deregulation. First, they could always file a new suit challenging such an action. Second, respondents might not suffer any injury at all if the partial deregulation were sufficiently limited in scope; for example, APHIS could deregulate in a way that would eliminate all risk of gene flow to respondents’ crops.

Third and finally, the Court held that the district court erred in entering a nationwide injunction against the planting of RRA.  The Court again emphasized the impropriety of enjoining APHIS from partially deregulating RRA:  “If APHIS may partially deregulate RRA before preparing a full-blown EIS—a question that we need not and do not decide here—farmers should be able to grow and sell RRA in accordance with that determination.”  And because a “less drastic” remedy, such as simply vacating APHIS’s deregulation decision, could redress respondents’ injury, it was unnecessary to resort to the “additional and extraordinary relief of an injunction.”

The lone dissenter, Justice Stevens, first disagreed with the Court’s interpretation of the district court’s judgment, which in his view could be read as rejecting only the particular partial deregulation order proposed by APHIS. But in any event, he still would have affirmed the decision below. First, because the district court found that planting in controlled situations could cause contamination and that APHIS lacked the resources to monitor plantings, it may reasonably have concluded that any deregulation of RRA required an EIS. Second, the district court “could reasonably have feared that partial deregulation would undermine the agency’s eventual decision.” Finally, given the district court’s findings of a substantial risk of gene flow and of APHIS’s weak monitoring capacity, it was reasonable to wait for an EIS.