On September 28, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (“District Court”) dismissed the Adorers of the Blood of Christ’s (“Plaintiffs”) claims that FERC violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) by authorizing Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company, LLC (“Transco”) to take property owned by Plaintiffs to construct and operate its Atlantic Sunrise Project on Plaintiffs’ property. In particular, the District Court held that (1) it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs’ action because U.S. Courts of Appeals have exclusive jurisdiction over FERC’s decisions and issues “inhering in the controversy” and (2) Plaintiffs could not collaterally attack FERC’s certificate order authorizing Transco to take Plaintiffs’ land after Plaintiffs failed to file objections at FERC.
Previously, on February 3, 2017, FERC authorized Transco to construct and operate the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline. In doing so, FERC granted Transco the right to take private property along the approved pipeline route by eminent domain if landowners did not voluntarily convey their property, including property owned by Plaintiffs—a religious group that owned land within the project’s approved route. Notably, Plaintiffs neither filed objections with FERC protesting the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline nor requested rehearing of FERC’s order approving the pipeline project. On April 14, 2017, after Plaintiffs refused to convey their property, Transco filed a complaint in the District Court to condemn a portion of Plaintiffs’ property so that Transco could construct, install, and operate the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline on Plaintiffs’ property. On August 23, 2017, the District Court granted Transco possession of Plaintiffs’ property.
Subsequently, Plaintiffs brought an action in the District Court claiming that FERC and Commissioner Cheryl LaFleur violated RFRA by issuing an order authorizing Transco to take Plaintiffs’ property and that Transco violated RFRA by taking Plaintiffs’ land by condemnation. Plaintiffs further argued that construction and operation of the Atlantic Sunrise Project through their land violated their free exercise of religion protected by RFRA. In response, FERC and Transco filed motions to dismiss, arguing that the District Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the action.
In its opinion, the District Court held that the Natural Gas Act (“NGA”) provides U.S. Courts of Appeals exclusive jurisdiction not only over appeals of FERC orders, but also over issues “inhering in the controversy” involving the FERC order. Moreover, the District Court held that the jurisdictional grant of RFRA does not trump the exclusive jurisdictional provision of the NGA. The District Court continued that because Plaintiffs’ RFRA claims “inhered in the controversy” between Plaintiffs and FERC, the District Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs’ action. In addition, the District Court stated that Plaintiffs could not collaterally attack FERC’s order in the District Court after failing to participate in the pipeline certificate proceeding at FERC. Accordingly, the District Court granted FERC’s and Transco’s motions to dismiss.
A copy of the opinion is available here.