Yesterday, Judge Corbett O’Meara, of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, dismissed a proposed class action complaint filed by a group of residents in Flint, Michigan regarding the drinking water contamination crisis against the City of Flint and several City employees, local politicians, Michigan’s Governor Snyder, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the Michigan Department of Health. The proposed class action included various state statutory and common law claims, as well as a constitutional claim asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a civil rights cause of action that allows private parties to recover monetary damages from state and local government entities for deprivation of constitutional rights. The plaintiffs did not include a Safe Drinking Water Act claim in their complaint, possibly as a tactical maneuver, since the sole remedy available in a citizen suit filed under the Safe Drinking Water Act is injunctive relief, rather than monetary damages which are available for a § 1983 constitutional claim.
In asserting federal jurisdiction over the matter, the proposed class plaintiffs asserted that the City of Flint violated their constitutional rights by providing them with contaminated drinking water and requiring them to pay for it. The defendants responded by arguing that the Court should dismiss the § 1983 action as preempted by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and, further, given the absence of any remaining federal question, dismiss the pendant state law claims.
Judge O’Meara agreed with the defendants, citing prior federal precedent from the United States Supreme Court and United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and held that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act provides a comprehensive system of enforcement and regulation of drinking water that preempts any other federal remedies. The prior federal cases that Judge O’Meara relied upon note that since “Congress occupied the field of public drinking water regulation” with the Safe Drinking Water Act, other federal law causes of action, including specifically a § 1983 claim, were preempted and unavailable to plaintiffs. Judge O’Meara declared that since all other federal causes of action were preempted, plaintiffs’ sole federal remedy was under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Since plaintiffs did not allege Safe Drinking Water Act claim in their complaint, and all the remaining causes of action were state-law claims, the complaint was dismissed from federal court.
Although the federal complaint was dismissed, this will not be last word on private party lawsuits related to the Flint drinking water crisis. Plaintiffs will likely re-file their case either asserting a claim under the SDWA, or pursue their state-law claims in a Michigan state court, where the case will join several other private party lawsuits about Flint’s contaminated drinking water that are sure to multiply over the coming months.