By Anthony Biraglia

In the civil case of Goldfarb v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, the Fourth Circuit vacated a Maryland district court’s dismissal of statutory claims under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”). In a published opinion released on July 1, 2015, the Court determined that dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims under either Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) 12(b)(1) or 12(b)(6) was improper based on the evidence considered, and that there were several extremely contentious fact issues that required adjudication beyond the motion to dismiss stage.

RCRA Claims and District Court Ruling

The RCRA fits into the federal environmental regulatory scheme by governing the treatment, storage, and disposal of solid and hazardous waste. Although the EPA generally has oversight responsibility under the statute, it does allow private citizens to bring civil actions under certain circumstances. Here Golfarb and others (collectively “Goldfarb”) brought claims against the City of Baltimore (“the City”), CBAC Gaming (“CBAC”), and Maryland Chemical in connection with an agreement between the City and CBAC to develop a casino on land previously owned by Maryland Chemical (“the Casino Site”). Golfarb, who frequented the recreational activities available in surrounding areas, relied on environmental studies that purportedly showed negative impacts from hazardous waste migration from the Casino Site. The plaintiffs alleged that actions and inactions by the City, CBAC, and Maryland Chemical constituted a violation of RCRA.

First, the district court found that CBAC was shielded from liability under the RCRA because any remedial measures under the RCRA would be inconsistent with those identified as appropriate in a permit issued under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). When such inconsistencies would arise, an anti-duplication provision in the RCRA protects persons that would otherwise be subject to liability. Second, the district court found that Goldfarb failed to state a claim against the city pursuant to two separate provisions of RCRA despite several complex factual issues that remained unresolved. Third, the district court found that Goldfarb failed to state a claim against Maryland Chemical because Maryland Chemical did not “contribute” to the waste at issue under the statute. The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment as to all claims.

Plaintiffs Stated RCRA Claims Against All Three Defendants

The Court first addressed Goldfarb’s claims against CBAC. Because the district court was not clear as to whether it dismissed the claims under the FRCP 12(b)(1) or 12(b)(6), the Fourth Circuit proceeded to analyze, and find incorrect, the ruling under both standards. With regard to the subject-matter jurisdiction challenge under FRCP 12(b)(1), the Court found that a provision in the RCRA that defers to other acts (such as the CWA) when obligations would be variable does not implicate subject-matter jurisdiction. Thus, it was improper for the district court to dismiss claims against CMBC for a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

With regard to the failure to state claim challenge under 12(b)(6), the Court indicated that the district court would have had to find that potential obligations to be imposed under the RCRA would be “inconsistent” under the statute. The district court did not engage an analysis of what type of obligations would be inconsistent, but the Fourth Circuit applied the dictionary definition to determine that the case must be remanded in order to decide whether those inconsistencies exist. The Court reasoned that the district court could not have reasonably determined at the motion to dismiss stage that the plaintiff’s RCRA allegations would lead to inconsistent obligations for CMBC under the statute.

Next, the Court addressed claims against the City. Goldfarb brought claims under § 6972(a)(1)(A) (“(a)(1)(A)”) and § 6972(a)(1)(B) (“(a)(1)(B)”), both of which were dismissed by the district court for failure to state a claim. On the contrary, the Fourth Circuit identified specific facts in Goldfarb’s complaint that tied the City’s actions to the language of (a)(1)(A). By asserting specific, identifiable actions, Goldfarb should have avoided dismissal as to this claim under FRCP 12(b)(6).

With regard to the (a)(1)(B) claim, the plaintiffs alleged, and the Fourth Circuit found, that the district court improperly focused on the disposal of waste where the statute also contemplates liability for the handling and storage of such waste. Because the plaintiffs alleged essentially the same facts for the (a)(1)(B) claim as the (a)(1)(A) claim, the Court found that the plaintiffs advanced sufficient facts to survive a motion to dismiss.

Finally, the Court addressed the district court’s dismissal of Goldfarb’s claims against Maryland Chemical. The district court reasoned that because Maryland Chemical was alleged to have “spill[ed], releas[ed], and/or dispos[ed] of hazardous waste,”incidents that could have occurred “without any active human participation.” Maryland Chemical could not have “contributed” to the pollution under the statute. The Fourth Circuit rejected this, stating that the complaint alleged sufficient past activities by Maryland Chemical to have it deemed a contributor to the pollution.

Vacated and Remanded

Based on the foregoing analysis, the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment as to all claims and remanded the case for further proceedings.