Earthjustice and Yale Law School’s Environmental Justice Clinic, at the U.S. District Court in Oakland, filed a motion for summary judgment calling on the federal court to decide that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency failed to fulfill its legal obligation to enforce civil rights laws.
The motion was filed on behalf of five organizations and an individual that filed civil rights complaints with the EPA that languished before the agency for more than 10 years, and in some cases 20 years, well beyond the legal deadline to complete its investigation and issue preliminary findings.
In filing the unreasonable delay lawsuit in 2015, the plaintiffs alleged that the EPA failed to fulfill its legal obligations to complete investigations of and issue preliminary findings regarding complaints the agency accepted within 180 days, as required by law.
The plaintiffs are seeking declaratory relief that EPA violated the law and injunctive relief that would require the EPA to produce findings in their complaints within 180 days, including any future Title VI complaints the plaintiffs file.
The plaintiffs’ brief notes: “EPA’s inaction with respect to these five complaints is illustrative of the agency’s well-documented record of violating mandatory deadlines applicable to civil rights complaints.”
According to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, recipients of federal funds are forbidden from using those funds in ways that have a disparate impact on the basis of race, color, or national origin if those impacts can be avoided.
Under federal civil rights law, the EPA must notify the complainant and recipient of federal funds of the receipt of each complaint within five days of such receipt; determine whether to accept the complaint for investigation within 20 days of the notification; and then issue preliminary findings and recommendations, if any, within an additional 180 days.
In January, the EPA filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint and for summary judgment, but the agency did not deny that it failed to meet the deadlines for completing civil rights investigations, the attorneys say.
Earthjustice attorney Suzanne Novak called on the EPA to do the right thing by following the legal requirements for enforcing the Civil Rights Act with respect to environmental discrimination.
“This is a simple case,” said Novak. “The EPA should do the right thing here. But instead of doing their job, the EPA tried to get rid of the case and deny people their day in court.”
Former Earthjustice Attorney Marianne Engelman Lado, now a visiting professor at Yale Law School, said that the EPA must not allow businesses or state agencies to use federal funds in a discriminatory way.
“Civil rights activists fought in the 1950s and 1960s so people would not unfairly suffer disparate treatment on the basis of race, color or national origin” said Lado. “The EPA should do its job, follow the law, and prevent communities from being subjected to environmental discrimination with federal money.”
The EPA has been under scrutiny for its poor civil rights record. In September, the United States Commission on Civil Rights published a scathing report, which found the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights fails to fulfill its civil rights responsibilities. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity, in its Environmental Justice Denied series, found the office of civil dismissed nine out of every 10 complaints alleging environmental discrimination and had never made a formal finding of a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in 22 years of reviewing complaints. That same year, Earthjustice filed the unreasonable delay lawsuit.