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Transtech Industries Inc. v. Clean

filed: September 17, 1993.




APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY. (D.C. Civ. No. 90-02578).

Before: Scirica, Nygaard, and Weis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Weis

Opinion OF THE COURT

Weis, Circuit Judge.

In this case brought under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), the district court rejected appellants' contention that, having entered into a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency, they were relieved of responsibility for cleanup expenses incurred by the owners of a landfill. We conclude that the district court's denial of summary judgment and refusal to enforce a settlement is a collateral order not appealable under the Cohen exception. Accordingly, we will dismiss the appeal.

The owners and operators of the Kin-Buc Landfill in New Jersey brought this suit in 1990 seeking contribution for costs incurred in cleaning up that hazardous waste site. The 445 named defendants are generators, transporters, or haulers of hazardous waste who are alleged to be potentially responsible parties liable to plaintiffs for past expenses incurred at the site, as well as for anticipated future costs.

Approximately 200 of the defendants ("settlor-defendants") moved for summary judgment asserting that, as a result of a settlement agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency embodied in a 1988 consent decree, they were not liable to plaintiffs. The district court denied the motion concluding that the consent decree covered only costs incurred by the United States and did not purport to absolve the settlor-defendants from liability for contribution to plaintiffs for their separate expenditures.

Under CERCLA, parties who have "resolved [their] liability to the United States . . . in a[] . . . judicially approved settlement shall not be liable for claims for contribution regarding matters addressed in the settlement."

42 U.S.C. § 9613(f)(2). The court concluded, however, that the application of that statutory provision was limited by the terms of the settlement agreement and that "in no way was the government absolving defendants from all liability to any other party for the ongoing problems at the site." The court then denied settlor-defendants' request for certification of a controlling question of law under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). Approximately 35 of the settlor-defendants have appealed.

Settlor-defendants contend that this Court has jurisdiction under the "collateral order" doctrine articulated in Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 545-47, 93 L. Ed. 1528, 69 S. Ct. 1221 (1949). In that case, the Court defined an exception to the final judgment requirement of 28 U.S.C. § 1291 as a "small class [of decisions] which finally determine claims of right separable from, and collateral to, rights asserted in the action, too important to be denied review and too independent of the cause itself to require that appellate consideration be deferred until the whole case is adjudicated." Id. at 546.

In Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U.S. 463, 57 L. Ed. 2d 351, 98 S. Ct. 2454 (1978), the Court listed three criteria that must be present for an interlocutory order to come within Cohen 's narrow exception to the final-judgment rule. The order must (1) conclusively determine the disputed question; (2) resolve an important issue completely separable from the merits of the action; and (3) be effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment. Id. at 468.

The Supreme Court has been chary of expanding the Cohen exception any further. In Lauro Lines s.r.l. v. Chasser, 490 U.S. 495, 498, 104 L. Ed. 2d 548, 109 S. Ct. 1976 (1989), the Court found that an interlocutory order denying enforcement of a contractual forum-selection clause did not satisfy the third requirement of the collateral order doctrine. The Court reiterated its "general rule" that an order is "effectively unreviewable" only if it "involves an asserted right the legal and practical value of which would be destroyed if it were not vindicated before trial." 490 U.S. at 498-99 (internal quotations omitted). That an erroneous ruling may result in additional litigation expense "'is not sufficient to set aside the finality requirement imposed by Congress' [in section 1291]." Id. at 499 (quoting Richardson-Merrell Inc. v. Koller, 472 U.S. 424, 436, 86 L. Ed. 2d 340, 105 S. Ct. 2757 (1985)).

An immunity to civil suit itself is a right that can be lost if not enforced before trial. Consequently, an order rejecting official immunity is immediately appealable, Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 525, 86 L. Ed. 2d 411, 105 S. Ct. 2806 (1985), as is one denying effect to the protection of the "Speech or Debate Clause," Helstoski v. Meanor, 442 U.S. 500, 506-08, 61 L. Ed. 2d 30, 99 S. Ct. 2445 (1979). See also Abney v. United States, 431 U.S. 651, 662, 52 L. Ed. 2d 651, 97 S. Ct. 2034 (1977) (order denying right not to stand trial on double jeopardy grounds is appealable before final judgment).

Although an order denying immunity to suit falls within the narrow confines of the "collateral order" doctrine, that exception may not be allowed to swallow the rule. In Van Cauwenberghe v. Biard, 486 U.S. 517, 100 L. Ed. 2d 517, 108 S. Ct. 1945 (1988), the Court remarked that "in some sense, all litigants who have a meritorious pretrial claim for dismissal ...


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