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Coal River Mountain Watch v. Republic Energy, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Beckley Division

August 12, 2019

COAL RIVER MOUNTAIN WATCH, APPALACHIAN VOICES, and SIERRA CLUB, Plaintiffs,
v.
REPUBLIC ENERGY, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          IRENE C. BERGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Court has reviewed the Plaintiffs' Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief (Document 1), the Defendant Republic Energy LLC's Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(b)(1), (6) & (7) (Document 16), the Defendant's Memorandum in Support of Republic Energy, LLC's Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(b)(1), (6) & (7) (Document 17), the Plaintiffs' Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (Document 23), the Defendant's Reply in Support of Republic Energy, LLC's Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 12(b)(1), (6) & (7) (Document 26), as well as all attached exhibits. For the reasons stated herein, the Court finds that the Motion to Dismiss should be granted.

         STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

         Congress enacted the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, 30 U.S.C. §§ 1201, et seq., (“SMCRA”) to establish minimum national standards for the regulation of surface coal mining. See Bragg v. West Virginia Coal Ass'n, 248 F.3d 275, 288 (4th Cir. 2001). Under SMCRA, a state may assume “exclusive” jurisdiction over the regulation of surface coal mining by enacting its own regulatory program that incorporates SMCRA's minimum standards, and may incorporate more stringent, but not inconsistent standards. Id. If the Secretary of the Interior approved a state's regulatory program, that state would then enjoy “exclusive jurisdiction over the regulation of surface coal mining” within its borders. See 30 U.S.C. § 1253(a). This exclusive regulatory authority is referred to as “primacy.” Bragg, 248 F.3d at 288-289. The Secretary of the Interior approved West Virginia's submission for such a regulatory program in 1981, thus granting West Virginia “primacy” status, and therefore, the ability to exclusively regulate coal mining in the State. See30 C.F.R. § 948.10. As part of this program, the West Virginia legislature enacted a statute entitled the “Surface Coal Mining and Reclamation Act” (hereinafter “WVSCMRA”). See W.Va. Code § 22-3-1 et seq. As amended, WVSCMRA vests the Director of the State Division of Environmental Protection (hereinafter “WVDEP”) with the authority to administer the Act and otherwise to provide for the regulation of surface coal mining within the State. See W.Va. Code § 22-3-4. WVSCMRA sets out minimum performance standards that mirror those found in SMCRA, and WVDEP exercises its statutorily granted power to promulgate State regulations that parallel those issued by the Secretary of the Interior pursuant to the federal act, including those with regard to issuing mining permits. See38 W.Va. Code St. R. § 2-1 et seq.

         FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS[1]

         The Plaintiffs, Coal River Mountain Watch, Appalachian Voices, and the Sierra Club (hereinafter collectively referred to as “the Citizen Groups”) are nonprofit environmentalist corporations that filed their complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief on November 15, 2018. The Citizen Groups want to stop Defendant Republic Energy, LLC (hereinafter “Republic”) from conducting surface coal mining operations at the Eagle No. 2 Surface Mine located in Clear Fork and Marsh Fork Districts of Raleigh County, West Virginia, because Republic has allegedly been operating on an invalid mining permit in violation of SMCRA and WVSCMRA. The Citizen Groups assert that Republic's mining permit terminated pursuant to 30 U.S.C. § 1256(c) and W.Va. Code § 22-3-8(a)(3) on June 7, 2011, because no coal mining activities had occurred within three years of its issuance.

         The Citizen Groups state that WVDEP initially issued the permit on June 6, 2008, to Marfork Coal Company (“Marfork”), Republic's predecessor. Although the SMCRA and WVSCMRA allow extensions to the three-year deadline, if timely made, upon a showing of certain conditions, Marfork did not make a timely request for an extension or provide any of the enumerated statutory justifications for an extension. Nevertheless, on February 9, 2012, WVDEP granted Marfork an extension of the period for commencement of mining operations. In addition to other irregularities[2] by WVDEP with respect to other extensions, on May 18, 2015, WVDEP approved Marfork's request to transfer its permit to Republic. Republic requested and received another extension alleging that it would otherwise suffer financial hardship, which is not a recognized statutory justification for extension. On March 19, 2018, Republic commenced surface mining operations at the Eagle No. 2 Surface Mine. To the extent it had not previously terminated, the mining permit expired on June 6, 2018.[3]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) raises the fundamental question of whether a court is competent to hear and adjudicate the claims brought before it. “In contrast to its treatment of disputed issues of fact when considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court asked to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction may resolve factual disputes to determine the proper disposition of the motion.” Thigpen v. United States, 800 F.2d 393, 396 (4th Cir. 1986) rejected on other grounds, Sheridan v. United States, 487 U.S. 392 (1988) (but explaining that a court should accept the allegations in the complaint as true when presented with a facial attack that argues insufficiency of the allegations in the complaint). Reasonable discovery may be necessary to permit the plaintiff to produce the facts and evidence necessary to support their jurisdictional allegations. Id. The plaintiff has the burden of proving that subject matter jurisdiction exists. See Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991). Dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is proper only if there is no dispute regarding the material jurisdictional facts and the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law. Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., a Div. of Standex Int'l Corp., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999).

         B. 12(b)(6)

         A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint or pleading. Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009); Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that a pleading contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Additionally, allegations “must be simple, concise, and direct.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(d)(1). “[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). In other words, “a complaint must contain “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Moreover, “a complaint [will not] suffice if it tenders naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Court must “accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). The Court must also “draw[ ] all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor.” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999). However, statements of bare legal conclusions “are not entitled to the assumption of truth” and are insufficient to state a claim. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Furthermore, the court need not “accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” E. Shore Mkts., v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice . . . [because courts] ‘are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, ‘to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). In other words, this “plausibility standard requires a plaintiff to demonstrate more than ‘a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.'” Francis, 588 F.3d at 193 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A plaintiff must, using the complaint, “articulate facts, when accepted as true, that ‘show' that the plaintiff has stated a claim entitling him to relief.” Francis, 588 F.3d at 193 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). “Determining whether a complaint states [on its face] a plausible claim for relief [which can survive a motion to dismiss] will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         C. 12(b)(7)

         Rule 12(b)(7) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a party to assert a defense by motion for failure to join a party required under Rule 19. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(7). Rule 19(a)(1)(B) provides that a party is required if: “that person claims an interest relating to the subject of the action and is so situated that disposing of the action in the person's absence may: (i) as a practical matter impair or impede the person's ability to protect the interests; or (ii) leave an existing party subject to a substantial risk of incurring double, multiple, or otherwise inconsistent obligations because of the interest.” Id. 19(a)(1)(B). If joinder of the required party is feasible, and the existing parties have failed to join it, the party may be joined by court order. Id. 19(a)(2).

         Dismissal based on nonjoinder is disfavored. Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. Meade, 186 F.3d 435, 441 (4th Cir. 1999). Therefore, courts conduct a two-step inquiry. First, courts consider whether a party is necessary “because of its relationship to the matter under consideration.” Id. at 440. Next, “[i]f a party is necessary, it will be ordered into the action.” Id. Only when a party cannot be joined will the court “determine whether the proceeding can continue in its absence, or whether it is indispensable pursuant to Rule 19(b) and the action must be dismissed.” Id. (noting that joinder is not feasible in a diversity case if the required party would destroy diversity jurisdiction).

         D. Younger and Burford Abstention Doctrines

         “Under the Younger-abstention doctrine[4], interests of comity and federalism counsel federal courts to abstain from jurisdiction whenever federal claims have been or could be presented in ongoing state judicial proceedings that concern important state interests.” Hawaii Housing Auth. v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229, 237-38, 104 S.Ct. 2321, 2327, 81 L.Ed.2d 186 (1984). The Fourth Circuit has recognized that “Younger abstention is appropriate only in those cases in which (1) there is an ongoing state judicial proceeding, (2) the proceeding implicates important state interest, and (3) there is an adequate opportunity to present the federal claims in the state proceeding.” Employers Resource Management Co., Inc. v. Shannon, 65 F.3d 1126, 1134 (4th Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1094, 1167 S.Ct. 816, 133 L.Ed.2d 761 (1996).

         However, “only exceptional circumstances justify a federal court's refusal to decide a case in deference to the States, ” New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans,491 U.S. 350, 368, 109 S.Ct. 2506, 105 L.Ed.2d 298 (NOPSI). NOPSI identified three such “exceptional circumstances.” First, Younger precludes federal intrusion into ongoing state criminal prosecutions. Id. Second, certain “civil enforcement proceedings” warrant Younger abstention. Id.Finally, federal courts should refrain from interfering with pending ...


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