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Alabama v. California Bill of Complaint Summary

Actions That Led to the Complaint

To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has largely declined to address climate change liability cases, and federal judges have consistently remanded these cases to State court. This trend could potentially shift in the coming months. A certiorari petition is currently pending in the Hawaii State court case, Sunoco LP v. City and County of Honolulu. This case was brought by Honolulu against 18 business entities in the traditional energy sector seeking to hold them liable under theories of public nuisance, private nuisance, strict liability for failure to warn, negligent failure to warn, and trespass.

Similar to the Hawaii case, dozens of states have filed comparable lawsuits in state courts alleging that energy companies misled the public about the risk of their products contributing to climate change among other related allegations. The lawsuits together claim billions of dollars of damage from weather events such as severe storms, wildfires, and rising sea levels.

Issues Presented by the Complainants

A coalition of Republican attorneys general in 19 states (the “Alabama Coalition”), led by Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, filed a Motion for Leave to File Bill of Complaint with the U.S. Supreme Court on May 22, 2024, asking the Court to block climate change liability lawsuits brought by California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island (the “California Coalition”) against various companies in the traditional energy sector.

The day after the Alabama Coalition filed the Motion for Leave to File Bill of Complaint, the Office of the Attorney General of Alabama issued a press release providing some of the motivation behind its filing. The release stated that the California Coalition’s current actions in state courts are attempting to “dictate the future of American policy energy.” The press release also claims that these lawsuits will negatively affect energy production and therefore increase energy costs throughout the U.S.

The Bill of Complaint argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has original and exclusive jurisdiction over this action under section 2 of Article III of the U.S. Constitution because the dispute is both a “Case … in which a State shall be a party” and a “controversy between two or more States.”

The Bill of Complaint alleges four claims against the California Coalition and argues that the Alabama Coalition is therefore entitled to injunctive relief under section 2 of Article III of the U.S. Constitution, 28 U.S.C. § 1251(a), and the inherent equitable powers of the U.S. Supreme Court.

First, the complaint alleges the California Coalition exceeds its authority in violation of the separation of powers doctrine. The complaint claims that the attempts by California Coalition to use its own state laws to regulate activity or extract liability for emissions within Alabama Coalition States violate the separation of powers doctrine, exceed its authority, and intrude on the Alabama Coalition’s core sovereignty.

Second, the complaint alleges the California Coalition exceeds its authority in violation of exclusive federal authority over interstate emissions. The complaint argues that the California Coalition has no authority to regulate interstate gas emissions, and its attempts to do so violate the Supremacy Clause. To support this claim, the complaint argues that the Clean Air Act demonstrated Congress’s singular and plenary authority to regulate interstate emissions because the Act did not grant states powers to regulate interstate emissions, which they never possessed.

Third, the complaint alleges that the attempt by the California Coalition to regulate activity within Alabama Coalition States is unconstitutional because it violates the Commerce Clause. According to the complaint, by attempting to enforce its own states’ laws on emissions within Alabama Coalition States, the states within the California Coalition are attempting to regulate out-of-state commerce.

Fourth, the complaint alleges that the Alabama Coalition is entitled to declaratory relief, under 28 U.S.C. § 2201, asserting that the attempts by the California Coalition to impose liability or obtain equitable relief from energy companies for emissions by or in Alabama Coalition States is unconstitutional. The complaint also alleges that the Alabama Coalition is entitled to declaratory relief, asserting that the California Coalition’s attempts to enjoin the promotion, sale, and/or use of traditional energy sources beyond its borders are unconstitutional.

Potential Implications for Lawsuits and State Actions using Climate Change to Impact the Traditional Energy Sector

The U.S. Supreme Court could also decide on the Bill of Complaint through another means. As mentioned in the introduction, currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court is its decision to grant or deny certiorari to Sunoco LP v. City and County of Honolulu, which allowed a climate change lawsuit by the city of Honolulu to move forward in Hawaii State court. In April 2024, Alabama filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court on behalf of 20 states asking the Court to review the Hawaii case. On June 10, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court invited the U.S. Solicitor General to file a brief expressing the views of the United States. If the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case and decided that these types of climate change liability lawsuits regulating interstate emissions are unconstitutional, then the existing lawsuits in state courts would be dismissed.

The Bill of Complaint in Alabama v. California was scheduled for conference on Thursday, June 13. The Court’s decision whether to grant review of the Bill of Complaint will have significant implications for the future of lawsuits and state actions using climate change to impact the traditional energy sector. If the Court rejects review of the Bill of Complaint, more lawsuits and state actions that allege claims against traditional energy sector companies related to climate change would likely follow. If the Court grants review of the Bill of Complaint and blocks the state court lawsuits from proceeding, then the existing lawsuits in state courts would be dismissed.

Beatty & Wozniak’s attorneys will continue to follow this and related lawsuits and their impacts on the industry.  Please contact Bret Sumner at [email protected] or Malinda Morain at [email protected] for more information.