February 17, 2021
A recent Law 360 story by Matthew Santoni, “Pa. Enviro Board Can Weight ‘Bad Faith’ in Awarding Attorney Fees,” reports that the administrative board that hears appeals of decisions by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection was justified in denying attorney fees to environmental groups that reached a settlement with Sunoco over its Mariner East 2 pipeline, since the board found neither side acted in "bad faith," a state appellate court ruled.
A majority of the Commonwealth Court ruled the state's Environmental Hearing Board could deny a petition for fees from the Clean Air Council, The Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Mountain Watershed Association Inc. based on the so-called bad faith standard, since neither the environmental groups nor Sunoco had acted in bad faith through the groups' appeal of the DEP granting permits for the pipeline, which resulted in a settlement between the groups and the state.
The environmental groups had argued that the board should have applied the looser "catalyst test," which would have only required them to show that their appeal was the motivating factor behind some benefit conferred by the other side in order to trigger fee-shifting provisions in the state's Clean Streams Law and have Sunoco pay their nearly $230,000 legal bill.
"Contrary to objectors' assertions, the catalyst test is not the sole and exclusive standard that EHB may employ in disposing of a request for costs and fees against a permittee under ... the Clean Streams Law. Indeed, we have specifically recognized that EHB's 'broad discretion includes the authority to adopt standards by which it will evaluate applications for costs and fees,'" wrote Judge Michael H. Wojcik for the majority. "It was entirely within EHB's discretion, and eminently appropriate, to apply the instant bad faith standard in deciding whether or not to impose costs and fees upon a private party permittee." The court ruled that the EHB had wide discretion when weighing whether and how to award fees, and in a separate decision it upheld another EHB ruling that had cut the fees awarded to a family that challenged the DEP permits for another part of the pipeline crossing their land.
The environmental groups had challenged 20 permits the DEP had granted Sunoco for construction of a pipeline linking gas wells in Western Pennsylvania to a refinery in the east. The matter wound its way through various proceedings before the EHB until the challengers reached a deal with the DEP in which it would establish a "stakeholder group" on pipeline construction and would put more of its permitting documents online in exchange for the groups dropping their challenge. The DEP also agreed to pay $27,500 of the challengers' legal fees.
But the challengers then asked the EHB to make Sunoco pay additional legal bills related to their appeal, and Sunoco filed its own petition to make the environmental groups pay nearly $300,000 toward what it had spent defending the permits. The EHB was split, with the majority saying it could apply the bad-faith standard and find that neither side had "engaged in dilatory, obdurate, vexatious, or bad faith conduct in the course of prosecuting or defending" the appeals. The minority had agreed that neither side was entitled to fees, but said the bad-faith test was not necessary and the board had broad discretion to award fees as it saw fit.
The environmental groups and the DEP both appealed, though the Commonwealth Court found the DEP lacked standing and granted Sunoco's bid to quash that side of the appeal because the state agency hadn't formally intervened in the fee debate and would not have been affected by the EHB ruling against the private parties.
President Judge P. Kevin Brobson wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer, expressing concerns that the EHB's discretion might be so broad that the particular section of the Clean Streams Law might run afoul of the state constitution's requirement that the law contain standards to "guide and restrain" the administrative board's decision-making. But because that issue wasn't brought up on appeal, and the EHB had denied either side any fees, this wasn't the case to address that with, Judge Brobson wrote. In this case, there was no reason Sunoco should have been required to pay, he said.
"There is absolutely no basis in the record upon which the EHB could have exercised its discretion below in such a way as to compel Sunoco to pay objectors' legal fees," he wrote. "Sunoco was not a party to the settlement agreement between objectors and DEP that essentially ended objectors' appeals. Moreover, Sunoco gave up nothing in the settlement or otherwise. Sunoco kept its permits, unaltered, as if objectors had not even filed their appeals with the EHB."
A dissenting opinion from Judge Ellen Ceisler said the courts shouldn't apply a tougher standard to permit holders when the DEP itself could have been made to pay fees under the catalyst test. "It does not therefore seem reasonable that, in theory, the DEP could be saddled with fees and costs in response to inadvertent mistakes or good faith, negotiated compromises or settlements, while a permittee could get off scot-free under similar circumstances unless it has conducted itself in a dilatory, obdurate, or vexatious way," she wrote.
The court then applied its ruling to a separate appeal by the DEP of another EHB order, which said the state had to pay about $13,000 of a family's requested $266,000 in fees from the DEP and Sunoco. Huntingdon County landowners Stephen and Ellen Gerhart had convinced the EHB in 2019 that the DEP had misclassified a wetland on their property and that Sunoco had to do more work to restore it after completing the pipeline's construction. But the EHB held Sunoco to the bad-faith standard and the DEP to the catalyst test in parceling out who was responsible for the reduced fee award.
Following the same logic as its ruling in the Clean Air Council case, the court affirmed that the EHB had the discretion to apply both standards in awarding fees. "We agree that the statute and the case law grant broad discretion to the EHB in setting the standard and applying it," said Robert Fox of Manko Gold Katcher & Fox LLP, representing Sunoco in both cases. An attorney for the environmental groups said they were weighing the decision and their options.
The attorney for the Gerharts said he thought the court correctly balanced the different standards for fee-shifting against the state and against private actors, but noted that in cases like his where the DEP and Sunoco essentially worked together to defend the permits, the state would have to be mindful of whether it would need to build a record to establish that the permit-holder was acting in bad faith.