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May 2015: Landmark Environmental Victory

May 2015

In a case the New York Times called “the most ambitious environmental lawsuit ever,” the firm helped secure a complete dismissal with prejudice. The historic environmental lawsuit had been filed by the Board of Commissioners of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority—East (the “Board”) against almost 100 oil and gas companies in Louisiana state court, including two of the Quinn Emanuel’s clients. The headline-making complaint named Quinn Emanuel’s clients and nearly a hundred other oil and gas companies, and alleged that oil and gas activities (in particular, dredging canals to access oil and gas wells) destroyed Louisiana’s coastline and diminished the natural buffer zone that protects against storm surges. The Board also alleged that, as a result, it faced increasing storm surge risk and flood protection costs, and sought damages from the defendants to pay for the restoration of the coastline—an effort it claimed would cost approximately $50 billion. The case was the subject of extensive press coverage, as it touched on national issues like the Keystone Pipeline debate and the federal government’s role in encouraging oil and gas exploration, as well as local hot button issues such as wetland loss and hurricane protection.

The first challenge was to get the case out of Louisiana state court where plaintiff initially filed it, and into federal court. The firm worked hand-in-hand with the other key defendants to develop and execute a strategy to remove the case to federal court and keep it there. Faced with a complaint that lacked any basis for diversity jurisdiction and artfully avoided pleading any federal claims, the defense urged the court to look past the labels plaintiff used and instead focus on the test for substantial federal question jurisdiction. In an early victory, Judge Nanette Brown of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana denied the plaintiff’s motion to remand in July 2014.

Having secured a preferred venue in federal court, Quinn Emanuel and the other defendants launched into a coordinated effort to dismiss the case. This included extensive motion to dismiss briefing on issues ranging from whether the Board’s claims were adequately stated, preempted by federal law and barred under state law, or non-justiciable and fell within the primary jurisdiction of federal and state agencies, as well as a well-attended and highly-publicized oral argument in New Orleans. Ultimately, Judge Brown rendered a decision that carefully and meticulously addressed each of the Board’s six causes of action, and held that each of them failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The victory was sweeping, but of particular lasting significance was the Court’s determination that the Board was incapable of making the showing that the defendants owed a specific duty to protect the Board from the results of coastal erosion allegedly caused by oil and gas activities along the coast. Given that several other variations of wetland loss cases are pending against the oil and gas industry in Louisiana and elsewhere, Judge Brown’s ruling is likely to become a key precedent in similar cases.

The Board has appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit.