In an opinion issued last month, the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, an order of Roman Catholic nuns, against the Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company (“Transco”) under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (“RFRA”). Adorers of the Blood of Christ U.S. Province v. Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Co LLC, 53 F.4th 56 (3d Cir. 2022). The Adorers’ sought in their lawsuit money damages from Transco as a result of the completed construction of a pipeline across the Adorers’ property, which they argued amounted to a substantial burden on their exercise of religion under RFRA. The Third Circuit upheld the dismissal of the suit, holding that the Adorers’ lawsuit was “inescapably intertwined” with an earlier approval issued for the pipeline by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) and therefore amounted to an impermissible collateral attack on that approval that was precluded by the Natural Gas Act.
The case related to Transco’s pipeline that traversed the Adorers’ property in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Before the pipeline was constructed, Transco had submitted an application to FERC for a certificate of public convenience and necessity, which essentially authorizes private gas pipeline developers to build, operate, and maintain new interstate gas pipelines. Although the Adorers opposed the proposed pathway of the pipeline at the time, they did not participate in the administrative proceedings regarding the FERC approval. They did not submit any public comments to FERC, nor did they appeal the approval after it was issued by FERC in accordance with the procedure for doing so set forth in the Natural Gas Act. Transco then proceeded to construct the pipeline.
Shortly after the pipeline was completed and put into service, the Adorers filed a federal lawsuit against Transco in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, seeking money damages against Transco for violating the exercise of their religious rights by putting in service a gas pipeline on their property. Transco sought to have the complaint dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, which the district court granted.
On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the Adorers’ lawsuit for want of subject matter jurisdiction. The Court held that the lawsuit amounted to an impermissible collateral attack on the FERC approval in contravention of the Natural Gas Act’s exclusive jurisdiction scheme. The Court explained that in the Natural Gas Act, Congress had deliberately crafted an administrative scheme that precluded parties from sidestepping the administrative process in a separate lawsuit, outside the judicial review provisions in the Natural Gas Act. It did not matter, the Court explained, that monetary damages – the only relief the Adorers’ sought – were not available in such an administrative challenge. When, as here, the “heart of the claim was bound up in the operation of the pipeline,” the subject of the FERC approval, the claim “could and should have” been presented to FERC during the administrative review process. Having failed to pursue their challenge to Transco’s pipeline before FERC, the Adorers could not now challenge the construction and operation of the pipeline in a separate lawsuit in federal court.