CINCINNATI (CN) – Residents of Flint, Michigan, can pursue civil claims against the city and state municipal officers in a water-contamination suit because the Safe Drinking Water Act does not pre-empt civil rights claims, the Sixth Circuit ruled on Friday.
The appeals court found, however, that the state of Michigan is entitled to immunity.
The ruling concerns two consolidated civil suits claiming Flint began pumping water from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money, and that the water caused health problems like high levels of copper in blood, hair loss and chronic throat problems.
The two lawsuits – one filed against Flint and its city officials and the other against Michigan and state officials – had previously been dismissed for lack of jurisdiction by U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara. But the three-judge Sixth Circuit panel reversed that decision and remanded the case to federal court.
“Having resolved that there is no textual indication in the SDWA that Congress expressly chose to pre-empt § 1983 claims and that the provisions of the remedial scheme do not demonstrate such an intention, we also find that the contours of the rights and protections found in the constitutional claims diverge from those provided by the SDWA such that we infer lack of congressional intention to foreclose § 1983 claims,” Circuit Judge Jane Branstetter Stranch wrote. “The defendants have not demonstrated that ‘Congress intended to abandon the rights and remedies set forth in 14th Amendment equal protection jurisprudence’ when it enacted the SDWA. Under the governing precedent, primarily that of the Supreme Court, the defendants have not carried their burden and the plaintiffs may thus move forward with their cases.”
But the panel did find the claims against Michigan and its governor are barred.
“Even if we were to find that the complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law, it is not clear what injunctive relief is sought,” Stranch wrote. “Though each count alleged requests injunctive relief, and the prayer for relief asks for ‘[a]ny other relief, including injunctive relief, as [the c]ourt deems fair,’ the plaintiffs provide no indication as to what this injunctive relief might be.”
Chief Circuit Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. and Circuit Judge Bernice B. Donald concurred.