United States v. Atlantic Research Corp.

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Opinion [Justice Thomas]




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

No. 06–562. Argued April 23, 2007—Decided June 11, 2007

Sections 107(a) and 113(f) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 allow private parties to recover expenses associated with cleaning up contaminated sites. Section 107(a) defines four categories of potentially responsible parties (PRPs) and makes them liable for, among other things, “(A) all costs of removal or remedial action incurred by the United States Government or a State or an Indian tribe not inconsistent with the national contingency plan” and “(B) any other necessary costs of response incurred by any other person consistent with [such] plan,” §§107(a)(4)(A)–(B). Originally, some courts interpreted §107(a)(4)(B) as providing a cause of action for a private party to recover voluntarily incurred response costs and to seek contribution after having been sued. However, after the enactment of §113(f), which authorizes one PRP to sue another for contribution, many courts held it to be the exclusive remedy for PRPs. In Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Aviall Services, Inc., 543 U. S. 157, 161, this Court held that a private party could seek contribution under §113(f) only after being sued under §106 or §107(a)..

After respondent Atlantic Research cleaned up a Government site it leased and contaminated while doing Government work, it sued the Government to recover some of its costs under, as relevant here, §107(a). The District Court dismissed the case, but the Eighth Circuit reversed, holding that §113(f) does not provide the exclusive remedy for recovering cleanup costs and that §107(a)(4)(B) provided a cause of action to any person other than those permitted to sue under §107(a)(4)(A).

Held: Because §107(a)(4)(B)’s plain terms allow a PRP to recover costs from other PRPs, the statute provides Atlantic Research with a cause of action. Pp. 4–11.

(a) Applying the maxim that statutes must “be read as a whole,” King v. St. Vincent’s Hospital, 502 U. S. 215, 221, subparagraph (B)’s language can be understood only with reference to subparagraph (A). The provisions are adjacent and have similar structures, and the text denotes a relationship between them. Subparagraph (B)’s phrase “other necessary costs” refers to and differentiates the relevant costs from those listed in subparagraph (A). Thus, it is natural to read the phrase “any other person” by referring to the immediately preceding subparagraph (A). Accepting the Government’s interpretation—that “any other person” refers only to a person not identified as a PRP in §§107(a)(1)–(4)—would destroy the symmetry of subparagraphs (A) and (B) and render subparagraph (B) internally confusing. Moreover, because the statute defines PRPs so broadly as to sweep in virtually all persons likely to incur cleanup costs, accepting that interpretation would reduce the number of potential plaintiffs to almost zero, rendering subparagraph (B) a dead letter. Pp. 4–7.

(b) Contrary to the Government’s argument, this interpretation will not create friction between §107(a) and §113(f). Their two clearly distinct remedies complement each other: §113(f)(1) authorizes a contribution action to PRPs with common liability stemming from an action instituted under §106 or §107(a), while §107(a) permits cost recovery (as distinct from contribution) by a private party that has itself incurred cleanup costs. Thus, at least in the case of reimbursement, a PRP cannot choose §107(a)’s longer statute of limitations for recovery actions over §113(f)’s shorter one for contribution claims. Similarly, a PRP could not avoid §113(f)’s equitable distribution of reimbursement costs among PRPs by instead choosing to impose joint and several liability under §107(a). That choice of remedies simply does not exist, and in any event, a defendant PRP in a §107(a) suit could blunt any such distribution by filing a §113(f) counterclaim. Finally, permitting PRPs to seek recovery under §107(a) will not eviscerate §113(f)(2), which prohibits §113(f) contribution claims against “[a] person who has resolved its liability to the United States or a State in an administrative or judicially approved settlement … .” Although that settlement bar does not by its terms protect against §107(a) cost-recovery liability, a district court applying traditional equity rules would undoubtedly consider any prior settlement in the liability calculus; the settlement bar continues to provide significant protection from contribution suits by PRPs that have inequitably reimbursed costs incurred by another party; and settlement carries the inherent benefit of finally resolving liability as to the United States or a State. Pp. 7–11.

459 F. 3d 827, affirmed.

Thomas, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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