A federal appeals court has reversed dismissal of two class actions brought over the Flint water crisis, garnering a rare victory for plaintiffs’ lawyers representing the city’s residents.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on Friday ruled the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act did not preempt constitutional claims, reversing U.S. District Judge John O’Meara’s dismissals of both cases on the ground that he lacked jurisdiction.
“It’s a good signal to many, many loyal clients and the families of Flint that we’re back in business in federal court,” said Michael Pitt, of Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers in Royal Oak, Michigan, who was named interim co-lead counsel in all the class actions that were consolidated on Thursday. “This court should proceed with really strong legal arguments and legal theories to advance the case.”
Samuel Bagenstos, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, who argued for the plaintiffs in one of the cases, called the decision a “common sense ruling.”
“What the court said was that, when Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, it wasn’t taking away the long-standing remedies over constitutional violations that everyone in America has,” he said.
The plaintiffs attorney in the other case, Nicholas Szokoly, a partner at Murphy Falcon & Murphy in Baltimore, did not return a call for comment.
â€‹”Attorneys for the city of Flint are reviewing the ruling to determine its impact and future steps regarding litigation,” wrote Flint spokeswoman Kristin Moore in an emailed statement. “Mayor Weaver and her administration remain focused on helping the city recover from the water crisis and meeting the needs of Flint residents.”
Michigan state officials did not return a call for comment.
The ruling has little direct impact on the class actions, which are now before a different judge, U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, who has ordered plaintiffs to file their master class action complaint by Sept. 29. But it reaffirms the plaintiffs’ argument that their claims belong in federal court, he said.
“Judge Levy is now going to be able to conduct the litigation process knowing that she’s not going to lose jurisdiction,” Pitt said. “It’s going to set the stage for some very important developments in the way this case is processed.”
Government officials in 2014 temporarily shifted Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, despite studies warning that its corrosive nature could risk lead from old pipes leaching into the drinking water.
From the start, plaintiffs lawyers have struggled to bring claims over the crisis. Hundreds of suits have been brought on behalf of residents, most of them individual cases involving medical problems or property damages. Class actions have brought allegations of professional negligence against the private engineering firms that tested the water. They also have alleged violations of the U.S. Constitution and the Michigan Consumer Protection Act.
The Sixth Circuit earlier this year ruled against the plaintiffs in a pair of Flint cases bringing different state law claims.
Friday’s ruling addressed two cases that O’Meara dismissed after concluding that the act, which gives the federal government the authority to regulate drinking water, precluded constitutional claims such as violations of due process and equal protection.
Turning to the legislative history of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Sixth Circuit disagreed.
“We find no clear inference from either the text of the statute or its legislative history that Congress intended for the SDWA’s remedial scheme to displace 1983 suits enforcing constitutional rights,” wrote Circuit Judge Jane Stranch.
The panel also noted that the act’s remedies were limited to injunctive relief, while the constitutional claims could ask for damages or other monetary relief. And the statute’s standards “diverge significantly from the protections afforded by the constitution,” the panel wrote, noting that the government could provide water in compliance with the act but violate the Equal Protection Clause if it differentiated its customers, “particularly if such distinction were based on intentional discrimination or lacked a rational basis.”
Pitt said the ruling has implications beyond the Flint crisis.
“It’s a breakthrough opinion in the sense that the Sixth Circuit really clarified the law,” he said. “Some of the earlier decisions conflated the concept of claims brought under a statutory violation theory and claims brought under constitutional violation theory, and the Sixth Circuit now clearly signals that litigants and courts have to look at the difference between the two types of claims.”