WaterKeepers Northern California (WaterKeepers) sued AG Industrial Manufacturing (AG Industrial), alleging discharges in violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The district court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction, concluding WaterKeepers' intent-to-sue letter did not provide sufficient notice of its claims. The Ninth Circuit held that WaterKeepers provided adequate notice to AG Industrial of its intent to sue under the CWA, reversed the lower court's dismissal for all except WaterKeepers's industrial process water claim, and remanded to the district court.
In June 2000, WaterKeepers sent notice of its intent to sue AG Industrial, a manufacturer of farm equipment for the wine grape industry, for CWA violations, including storm water pollution and the discharge of contaminated non-storm water. The CWA requires private plaintiffs to notify alleged violators of their intent to sue at least sixty days before filing a complaint, and a plaintiff must send an intent-to-sue letter that "includes 'sufficient information to permit the recipient to identify the specific standard, limitation, or order alleged to have been violated, the activity alleged to constitute a violation, . . . [and] the date or dates of such violation.'" After more than sixty days had elapsed, WaterKeepers filed a suit alleging continuing and recurring violations of the CWA at AG Industrial's facility in Lodi, California. Each side moved for summary judgment, but, without deciding on the merits, the district court dismissed the suit, concluding that WaterKeepers's intent-to-sue letter did not provide sufficient notice of its claims. The district court also denied AG Industrial's motion for prevailing party attorney fees because WaterKeepers's claims were not "frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation." On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reviewed the adequacy of the intent-to-sue letter de novo.
The Ninth Circuit held that the district court's ruling on notice was inconsistent with its recent decision in San Francisco BayKeeper, Inc. v. Tosco Corporation. The Ninth Circuit found the notice letter to be adequate, even though it "'did not provide any specific dates' for the alleged violations." The Ninth Circuit held that the allegations in WaterKeepers's letter were as sufficient as those in San Francisco BayKeeper because the allegations in the letters in both cases were equally specific.
AG Industrial argued that the district court's dismissal should be affirmed on four grounds. First, it argued that WaterKeepers's intent-to-sue letter gave insufficient notice of the specific standards that AG Industrial was violating. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument because the letter listed the contaminants believed to be at AG Industrial's site, explained the contaminant's exposure to rainfall, and listed specific provisions of the state's General Permit under the CWA that allegedly were violated.
Second, AG Industrial argued that WaterKeepers gave insufficient notice of non-storm water discharges. Without providing specific dates, the letter claimed that contaminants were discharged when AG Industrial washed down dirty facilities, machinery, and equipment. The Ninth Circuit, however, relied on San Francisco BayKeeper and held that the letter provided sufficient information to allow the company to identify the dates of alleged violations. The Ninth Circuit concluded that AG Industrial was in a better position to know the dates it washed down its facilities and equipment, and WaterKeepers's letter provided the necessary information to identify the dates of alleged violations.
Third, AG Industrial argued that the dismissal of WaterKeepers's prevention, monitoring, and reporting claims should be affirmed because it had cured all violations after receiving the intent-to-sue letter but before WaterKeepers filed its complaint. WaterKeepers argued that the changes made by AG Industrial still did not fulfill the requirements of its General Permit. The Ninth Circuit decided that AG Industrial's new plan did not render WaterKeepers' intent-to-sue letter ineffective. The Ninth Circuit held that, when a notice letter was received, subject matter jurisdiction was established, and no further notice was required, even if the recipient had begun to implement a cure.
Finally, citing the Supreme Court's decision in Gwaltney of Smithfield, Ltd. v. Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Inc.(Gwaltney), AG Industrial argued that dismissal should be affirmed because the evidence submitted by the parties for summary judgment showed that WaterKeepers did not file its complaint in "good faith." According to AG Industrial, WaterKeepers's claims had to be dismissed because they did not meet the "good-faith" requirement articulated by the Supreme Court in Gwaltney. The Ninth Circuit held that Gwaltney did not require an examination of the merits of the parties' summary judgment motions to decide whether the district court had jurisdiction--a good faith allegation alone is sufficient to confer jurisdiction.
In conclusion, because the Ninth Circuit held that the district court had jurisdiction over nearly all of WaterKeepers's claims, the court also held that AG Industrial was not a prevailing party entitled to attorney fees under the Clean Water Act. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's dismissal in part, affirmed the dismissal of WaterKeepers's process water claim, affirmed the district court's denial of attorney fees, and remanded to the district court to reach the merits.