The Supreme Court’s decision in CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, No. 13-339, 573 U.S. __ (June 9, 2014), sends a strong message to lower courts that the oft-repeated refrain that CERCLA is a “remedial statute” that must be “interpreted in a liberal manner” to effectuate its purpose cannot “substitute for a conclusion grounded in the statute’s text and structure.” The refrain that CERCLA must be “interpreted in a liberal manner” has been used time and again by CERCLA plaintiffs – including the federal government – to encourage courts to make an already severe statute all the more so. This is exactly what the Fourth Circuit did in this case, resulting in a 7-2 reversal by the Supreme Court. This decision will make it more difficult for future CERCLA plaintiffs to persuade courts to interpret CERCLA’s provision “in a liberal manner” to suit their claims.
In the decision below, the Fourth Circuit held that CERCLA Section 309, 42 U.S.C. § 9658, preempts state statutes of repose in addition to state statutes of limitations even though CERCLA does not mention statutes of repose. (A statute of repose cuts off a claim at a certain period of time after the defendant’s last culpable act and reflects a legislative judgment that the defendant should be free from liability thereafter. This period is not subject to equitable tolling. By contrast, a statute of limitation cuts off a claim at a certain period of time after an injury occurs or is discovered and reflects a legislative determination that a plaintiff should be encouraged to promptly pursue a claim. This period is subject to equitable tolling.) In reversing that decision, the Supreme Court noted the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation had been guided by “the proposition that remedial statutes should be interpreted in a liberal manner.” The Court declared that it was “error” to treat this ostensible interpretive guide “as a substitute for a conclusion grounded in the statute’s text and structure.” With a terse reminder that “Congressional intent is discerned primarily from the statutory text,” the Court rejected the notion that CERCLA should be interpreted differently from other statutes merely because it might be characterized as a remedial statute: “After all, almost every statute might be described as remedial in the sense that all statutes are designed to remedy some problem. And even if the Court identified some subset of statutes as especially remedial, the Court has emphasized that ‘no legislation pursues its purposes at all costs.’” Slip Opinion at 10 (quoting Rodriguez v. United States, 480 U.S. 522, 525-26 (1987)).
The Court also explained that even if it were sometimes appropriate to interpret remedial statutes “in a liberal manner,” that interpretive approach would not necessarily take primacy over other potentially applicable norms of statutory interpretation. The Court noted that, in this case, “substantial support also exists for the proposition that ‘the States’ coordinate role in government counsel against reading’ federal laws such as § 9658 ‘to restrict the States’ sovereign capacity to regulate’ in areas of traditional state concern.” Id. (quoting FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, Inc., 569 U.S. __, __ (2013) (Slip Opinion at 18).
In future CERCLA litigation, CTS Corp. v. Waldburger may well be cited more for the Court’s instructions on statutory interpretation than for its narrow holding that CERCLA does not preempt state statutes of repose, as opposed to statutes of limitations, for state law personal injury and property damages torts.