SAN FRANCISCO, CA (CN) – A federal judge remanded a lawsuit filed by environmentalists against the Northwest Pacific Railroad Line back to state court, saying that the district court lacks proper jurisdiction in a case exclusively involving state law claims.
Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CATs) and Friends of the Eel River (Friends) filed suit last July in Marin County Superior Court against the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) and its Board of Directors, alleging that their plans to re-open the defunct Russian River Division of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Line will damage the delicate coastal environment.
According to the original complaint, the currently moribund rail line passes through miles of wetlands, creeks, and rivers in California’s scenic wine country, following Highway 101 as it stretches from Lombard to Outlet Creek, one of the Eel River’s tributaries.
“The whole of the project’s entire environmental setting and the impacts or harm that may be the result of resurrecting and reopening this railroad corridor is significant,” the groups claim in their complaint.
In 1998, the Federal Railroad Administration shut down the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Line because it violated many federal and state safety laws.
Almost ten years later, the NCRA announced plans to reopen the line and began conducting studies on which areas in the Russian River Division needed to be repaired.
After publishing several environmental impact reports, the NCRA Board of Directors approved the project in early 2011.
However, the environmental groups claimed that the final environmental impact report violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by including only the RRD line in its analysis, and failing to analyze how reopening the line and releasing toxic materials into the soil and water would affect air quality, public safety, and biological resources.
The NCRA moved the case to federal court in August 2011, arguing that “the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act completely preempts Plaintiffs’ state law claims, and that the state claims depend on the resolution of substantial federal questions,” wrote U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero in the ruling he issued on Tuesday.
The environmental groups disagreed and filed motions to remand the case, arguing the issue being argued is not exclusively federal because the ICCTA does not govern CEQA claims brought against public agencies, citing the ruling in Fayard v. Northeast Vehicle Services, LLC.
The NCRA and its Board moved to dismiss these motions, contending the issue was federal because it revolved around the operations of a railroad. Thus, they said, the ICCTA can preempt the issue even though only state laws are the basis of the original cause of action.
In their motion to oppose, the NCRA cited Brennan v. Southwest Airlines Company to support its argument that ICCTA preempts the environmentalists’ CEQA claims because the case deals with railroad operations, which fall under federal jurisdiction.
On review, Spero noted that while the language in the ICCTA is broad, it was not a cause of action in the environmental groups’ original complaint.
“Defendants must point to some provision in the ICCTA that supplies a federal cause of action amounting to Plaintiffs’ CEQA claims,” the judge wrote. “Defendants, however, fail to meet this basic requirement necessary to establish removal based on complete preemption.”
He also disagreed with the NCRA’s claim that the issue was a federal question by pointing out that Friends and CATS filed suit for specific violations of CEQA, not because they wanted to determine if an environmental review needed to be conducted.
“Because there is no clear-cut federal cause of action for Plaintiffs’ claims here, the Court finds that Defendants have not satisfied their burden that removal through the ‘extreme’ and ‘unusual outcome’ of complete preemption was proper,” Spero wrote.
He also agreed with the environmental groups in criticizing the NCRA’s decision to remove the case without the approval of the Sonoma-Marin Area Transit Commission (SMART), one of the parties in interest named in the original lawsuit.
Though the rail authority claimed that SMART had no interest in the case, the judge disagreed on the basis that SMART owns much of the land that will be affected by the ultimate decision of the case.
“For the reasons stated, the Court grants plaintiffs’ motions to remand, and denies Friends’ motion for attorneys’ fees. Accordingly, the Court remands both cases to state court,” Spero concluded.