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By Matthew B. Smith

The first of many coastal land loss lawsuits filed by Louisiana coastal parishes has proceeded to judgment, with the result being the dismissal of the case based on the failure to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing suit.

Since the filing of the politically-charged Southeastern Louisiana Flood Protection Authority lawsuit, four parishes – Plaquemines, Jefferson, and more recently Cameron and Vermilion – have filed 40 similar lawsuits against oil and gas exploration and production companies, and pipeline companies, alleging that these companies violated the State and Local Coastal Resources Management Act of 1978 (“SLCRMA”) and, in doing so, caused or contributed to coastal land loss. The foundation of the parish plaintiffs’ claims is that the oil and gas companies performed certain activities in Louisiana’s coastal zone either (i) without the Coastal Use Permits required by the SLCRMA or (ii) or in violation of the Coastal Use Permits which were issued under the SLCRMA. Recently, the Louisiana Attorney General and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, Office of Coastal Management (the “Intervenors”) intervened in the lawsuits, joining with the parish plaintiffs in order to ensure the protection of the State’s interests.

The oil and gas company defendants have raised various exceptions to the claims of the parishes and Intervenors, including the defense that the lawsuits are premature because the plaintiffs failed to pursue the administrative remedies available under the SLCRMA and related regulations prior to filing suit. This argument was considered in the case of The Parish of Jefferson v. Atlantic Richfield Company, et al., No. 732-768, 24th Judicial District Court, Jefferson Parish, with Judge Stephen D. Enright, Jr. issuing a Judgment on August 1, 2016 (published on August 8, 2016) agreeing with the oil and gas company defendants and dismissing the claims of Jefferson Parish and the Intervenors as premature for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

In his Judgment, Judge Enright found that a comprehensive administrative remedy exists under the SLCRMA and the Louisiana Administrative Code (particularly La. Admin. Code tit. 43, pt. I sec. 723(D)(1-4)) to address potential violations of Coastal Use Permits. Accordingly, the Court ordered that Jefferson Parish and the Intervenors must pursue and exhaust this administrative remedy process prior to bringing suit in court seeking civil damages. As the Court stated, “in the absence of an exhaustion of administrative remedies, it is yet to be determined whether civil damages exist.”

While Jefferson Parish has indicated that it will file a motion for a new trial and/or appeal to the Louisiana Fifth Circuit, the Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry issued a statement on August 10, 2016, indicating that he will not seek to challenge Judge Enright’s ruling because the ruling is protective of the State’s interest, in that it allows the Louisiana Department of Resources to determine whether any violations of Coastal Use Permits have occurred through the administrative process established by the SLCRMA and the Louisiana Administrative Code. As stated by Attorney General Landry:

addressing the issues associated with permit violations through the administrative process is a cost-effective, efficient way to resolve any violations. That was clearly the purpose of the Legislature creating this regulatory scheme. I believe the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources has been given ample tools by the Legislature to address these issues.

Full Statement.

While a victory for the oil company defendants, it is still expected that additional parishes will file coastal land loss lawsuits. We will continue to report on key developments in these cases.