SCOTUS Opinion: Limitations on CERCLA Contribution Claims Only for CERCLA-Specific Liabilities

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) established the framework for who should pay for environmental issues. In particular, CERCLA allows “a person who has resolved its liability to the United States or a State” in a settlement to raise a contribution claim from another responsible individual. In 2004, the Territory of Guam settled litigation initiated by the Environmental Protection Agency involving violations of the Clean Water Act at the Ordot Dump. Over a decade later, Guam sued the U.S. under CERCLA seeking contribution for its use of the Dump. The D.C. Circuit dismissed Guam’s claim, holding that the claim was untimely because the EPA settlement triggered CERCLA’s three-year statute of limitations period.

The Court, in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Thomas, reversed, holding that the limitations period did not apply to Guam’s contribution claim because that claim did not involve a CERCLA-specific liability. The contribution claim described in 42 U.S.C. sec. 9613(f)(3)(B) that is subject to the three-year limitations period is, by its plain terms, limited to recovery for settlements of a “response action,” which is a term specific to CERCLA. Thus, only CERCLA-specific settlements incurred the limitations period, and not Guam’s settlement under the Clean Water Act, permitting Guam’s claim to proceed.

A link to the decision in Guam v. United States is here: