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In Save the Peaks Coalition v. United States Forest Service (9th Cir. 2012) 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 2563, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that, although Save the Peaks Coalition (“SPC”) abused the judicial process by holding back claims that should have been asserted in an earlier litigation, laches did not bar SPC from bringing a challenge under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) because the United States Forest Service (“USFS”) failed to demonstrate that it suffered prejudice. However, the Court found that the USFS complied with NEPA, thus upholding the lower court’s decision to grant USFS’s motion for summary judgment.

In a prior lawsuit, a different petitioner – utilizing the same attorney as SPC – brought a similar complaint challenging USFS’s approval of the use of man-made snow from Class A+ reclaimed water at a ski area in the San Francisco Peaks. In light of the prior case, the District Court found that laches barred SPC’s action. SPC timely appealed, first claiming that the lower court erred in finding that laches barred its claims, and second that the USFS violated NEPA because: 1) USFS’s final environmental impact statement (FEIS) did not thoroughly discuss the significant environmental consequences of making snow from reclaimed water; 2) USFS failed to ensure scientific integrity of its analysis; and, 3) USFS did not disseminate quality information.

Laches apply when there is clear evidence that (1) the plaintiff lacked diligence in pursuing its claims, and (2) the defendant experienced prejudice as a result. To determine whether a plaintiff lacks diligence, a court must consider several factors, such as whether the plaintiff communicated its position to the defendant, the nature of the defendant’s response, and the length of delay. Here, the Court found that SPC lacked diligence. However, the Court held that USFS failed to show it experienced prejudice as a result of SPC’s delay. Specifically, USFS had not started construction before the suit was filed, and no irreversible harm was done. Because USFS did not show prejudice, the Court ruled that the lower court erred in barring SPC’s claims by laches. In reaching its holding, the Court explained that courts strongly discourage the use of laches as a defense in environmental cases. Environmental damages affect more than just the plaintiff, and use of laches to defeat a challenge typically would conflict with the purpose behind Congressional environmental policies.

Turning to SPC’s NEPA claims, the Court used a rule of reason standard to determine whether USFS took a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of making snow with reclaimed water, as required by NEPA. In rejecting SPC’s arguments, the Court found that the USFS’s FEIS discussed the significant probable environmental impacts and was replete with careful considerations of the risks its decision posed. The lengthy discussion in the FEIS, along with USFS’s responses to comments, compelled the Court to rule that the USFS did in fact take the requisite “hard look” at the environmental impacts and human risks of making snow with reclaimed water. The Court also rejected SPC’s argument that USFS failed to ensure scientific integrity pursuant to NEPA by considering the conclusions of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). The Court dispelled this argument by showing that the USFS’s careful consideration of the risks made little reference to the ADEQ analysis. SPC’s last argument concerning the dissemination of quality information was abandoned due to failure to respond to USFS’s summary judgment motion on the issue.

Key Points: 

As demonstrated in Turtle Island Restoration Network v. U.S. Dept. of States (9th Cir. 2012) 2012 U.S.LEXIS 3263, where privity between parties can be established res judicata may bar the subsequent litigation making it unnecessary to establish laches.

Written By: Tina Thomas, Chris Butcher and Holly McMannes (law clerk)

For questions relating to this blog post or any other California land use, environmental and/or planning issues contact Thomas Law Group at (916) 287-9292.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Thomas Law Group, nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.

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