Another Supreme Court Opinion This Term on Time Limitations for Claims

Yesterday the Court decided  CTS Corp. v. Waldburger (non-federal-Indian-law case). The Court held that injured parties cannot bring claims against corporations that pollute if the claim falls outside of a state statute of repose, even if the claim would be otherwise preserved by a federal law. Generally, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) pre-empts state statutes of limitation, because Congress wanted to preserve injuries from pollution that can sometimes take years to discover. However, North Carolina also has a state statute of repose, which bars claims brought more than 10 years after the last culpable act. Since CERCLA only specifically identifies statutes of limitations and not repose, the Court found the claimants are unable to bring their damages claim against the company (which sold the land in 1987).

In her dissent with Justice Breyer, Justice Ginsburg would preserve the claim, finding Congress’s intent was to preserve these claims, regardless of the name of the state limitations statute.

Not only will this decision harm the landowners involved in the case, but those injured by contaminated wells at Camp Lejeune (a Marine base also in North Carolina), who currently have claims pending in the 11th Circuit. Article here from right after oral arguments (though it misjudges J. Kagan, who joined the majority in the case).

Laches Does Not Apply to an Action in Law, Unless it Does

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on the copyright of the Raging Bull screenplay involved both copyright law and laches. At issue was how long the screenwriter’s heir could wait to sue MGM for permission to renew the copyright. Copyright was originally sold to a company in 1976, and the heir waited until 2009 to sue for copyright infringement. She did communicate with MGM her displeasure during this time, but did not sue. The lower courts dismissed her claim on laches (as a refresher, laches is an affirmative defense used when the plaintiff waits an “unreasonable” amount of time to bring a claim and the defendant is injured by that delay).

In reversing the 9th Circuit, Justice Ginsburg cites to Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida 470 U.S. 226, 244, n.16 (1985) “(“[A]pplication of the equitable defense of laches in an action at law would be novel indeed.”).” It would be! But wait! That’s exactly what the Second Circuit did in Cayuga Indian Nation v. New York (relying on City of Sherrill v. OIN), as Justice Breyer points out in his dissent: “Lower courts have come to similar holdings in a wide array of circumstances—often approving not only of the availability of the laches defense, but of its application to the case at hand. E.g., Cayuga Indian Nation of N. Y. v. Pataki, 413 F. 3d 266, 274–277 (CA2 2005) (laches available in a “possessory land claim” in which the District Court awarded damages, whether “characterized as an action at law or in equity,” and dismissing the action due to laches);”. No one cited to City of Sherrill, perhaps because that case only “evokes” the doctrine of laches.

And in a majority footnote:

“13 Assuming Petrella had a winning case on the merits, the Court of Appeals’ ruling on laches would effectively give MGM a cost-free license to exploit Raging Bull throughout the long term of the copyright. The value to MGM of such a free, compulsory license could exceed by far MGM’s expenditures on the film.”

Because we wouldn’t want laches to be used to achieve THAT to result.