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Sixth Circuit Holds Safe Drinking Water Act Does Not Preempt Constitutional Claims

The Sixth Circuit revived previously dismissed claims in the Flint water cases, clarifying where the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) does not preempt § 1983 claims. Boler v. Earley, No. 16-1684 (6th Cir. July 28, 2017). Previously dismissed as preempted under the SDWA, the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims were found to be distinct from statutory rights, which might have been preempted by the SDWA.

Citizens of Flint and consumers of Flint water filed suit against the State of Michigan, the City of Flint, and their respective officials. The suits alleged a series of claims including constitutional claims under § 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code, described by the Sixth Circuit as a “vehicle for a plaintiff to obtain damages for violations of the Constitution or a federal statute.” The District Court determined that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the plaintiffs’ § 1983 claims were preempted by the federal SDWA and dismissed the cases.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit focused on the congressional intent behind SDWA to determine whether Congress intended to displace remedies available under constitutional jurisprudence when it passed the SDWA. The court looked at three elements of the statute: statutory text, the remedial scheme of the SDWA, and the types of rights and protections provided by the SDWA. Regarding the text, the court held that because the SDWA neither uses “language related to constitutional rights” nor codifies “legal standards that appeared in prior cases to enforce rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” the court could find no preclusion. The court found “no clear inference from either the text of the statute or its legislative history that congress intended for the SDWA’s remedial scheme to displace § 1983 suits enforcing constitutional rights.” Further, the court did not find the remedial scheme “so comprehensive as to demonstrate congressional intent” to preclude a § 1983 suit. Finally, the court analyzed the type of right protected. It presented hypotheticals suggesting that an action may violate the Due Process Clause without violating the SDWA, or vice versa. Such a case provides that the “contours of the rights and protections found in the constitutional claims diverge from those provided by the SDWA” so as to refute a claim for preemption.