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Powder River Basin Resource Council v. Babbitt

ELR Citation: 26 ELR 20789
Nos. No. 93-8117, 54 F.3d 1477/40 ERC 1697/(10th Cir., 04/18/1995)

The court holds that the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not bar a citizen group that was denied attorney fees by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality from asserting a Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) claim against the state agency in federal court. The group filed suit in federal district court seeking a declaration that the state's attorney fees regulation violated SMCRA, or a ruling that construes the regulation as consistent with SMCRA and applies it retroactively. The court first holds that because the group sought prospective relief, the Eleventh Amendment did not bar its suit. The group alleged a continuing violation of SMCRA because the allegedly deficient regulation was still in force when the suit was filed. The court next holds that the case was ripe when filed. Even though the state agency began proceedings to change the attorney fees provision, those proceedings did not lessen the force of the statute, and there was no guarantee that the provision would be altered. The court holds, however, that the environmental group lost standing during its federal appeal, because it won its appeal to the state supreme court. Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gollust v. Mendell, 501 U.S. 115 (1991), the court holds that a plaintiff must maintain standing at all times throughout the litigation for a court to retain jurisdiction. Since the state supreme court ordered the state agency to pay the attorney fees, the group lost the injury on which its standing was originally based. The court next addresses whether the group is entitled to attorney fees incurred before it lost standing. The court holds that the district court abused its discretion in denying the group attorney fees because the state agency started proceedings to correct the allegedly deficient regulation. Although the agency had begun proceedings to change the attorney fees regulation, the regulation was still in effect. The court remands the case to the district court to determine whether the group's action was a catalyst for the change in the state's regulation that would entitle it to attorney fees. Last, the court holds that the group's suit against the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) is moot. The court can offer no relief because the relief the environmental group requested is applicable only when DOI has conditionally approved the state's SMCRA program. In this case, DOI has determined that the state has fully complied with SMCRA's requirements and has therefore removed conditional approval.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Jon B. Huss
Brown, Drew, Massey & Sullivan
Casper Business Ctr.
123 W. First St., Ste. 800, Casper WY 82601
(307) 234-1000

Counsel for Defendants
Jeffrey P. Kehne
Environment and Natural Resources Division
U.S. Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 514-2000

Before TACHA and McKAY, Circuit Judges, and HANSEN,* District Judge.