Two recent decisions in New York state’s federal courts granted defendants’ motions to dismiss based on inadequately pled allegations, highlighting the strict pleading standard of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). Both cases present ammunition to dismiss a case at the early stages of the litigation based on the allegations in a complaint.

The Western District of New York and the Northern District of New York recently issued decisions granting Defendants’ motions to dismiss under CERCLA in Elizabeth Andres et. al v. Town of Wheatfield et. al (Western District) and Matthew Ward v. Town of Summer Hill et. al. (Northern District). Harris Beach attorney Joseph Picciotti represented the County Defendant in the Ward matter.

Vague and Inconclusive Claims Will Not Suffice

In Elizabeth Andres et. al v. Town of Wheatfield et. al, the Plaintiffs, owners/renters of nearby properties, alleged that they were exposed to toxic and hazardous substances emanating from the Nash Road landfill. They alleged that for decades, they utilized the landfill area for recreational purposes, not aware of the risks of exposure.

The Court held that Plaintiffs failed to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face as required by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court reasoned that Plaintiffs did not allege a “signature” injury linking the product to the alleged harm; and that the allegations in the Complaint did not clearly state which substance caused the harm. The Court found that the Complaint also did not allege how, when or where the chemicals entered Plaintiffs’ properties. The Court reasoned that while Plaintiffs alleged that they had to incur (unallocated) response costs to determine the nature and extent of releases, threatened releases and contamination, they did not include the results of their studies in the Complaint. Overall, the Court agreed with Defendants that the claims were impermissibly vague and conclusory.

In Matthew Ward v. Town of Summer Hill et. al, Plaintiff brought claims against the town of Summer Hill and the County under CERCLA concerning groundwater and property contamination from the Summer Hill Landfill, among other claims. Plaintiff alleged that his groundwater and property are contaminated with hazardous material from the landfill.

In its motion to dismiss, the County argued that Plaintiff’s allegations were insufficient to state a claim as Plaintiff failed to allege that the County was a “responsible party” under CERCLA. Plaintiff, in response, argued that the County was an “operator” under the statute. Plaintiff attached two exhibits in support of his argument that the County exercised sufficient control over the Landfill including FOIL requests, meeting minutes and field notes. The Court held that Plaintiff offered no reason why the Court should consider the exhibits; but even if they did, the evidence did not suffice to establish the “operator” status of the County. Indeed, the Court adopted the County’s argument that the field notes “repeatedly identify the Town as the owner and operator of the Landfill.” The Court agreed with the County and held that Plaintiff failed to set forth a prima facie case under CERCLA.

These two recent CERCLA cases highlight the strict pleading standard, particularly regarding the element of causation, for a CERCLA claim.

This alert does not purport to be a substitute for advice of counsel on specific matters.

Harris Beach has offices throughout New York State, including Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca, Melville, New York City, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse, Uniondale and White Plains, as well as New Haven, Connecticut and Newark, New Jersey.