The Present Litigation
Civil Action No. 89-2717. Count One asserts that the 20 percent held by OHA in escrow for end-user claimants may be insufficient to satisfy the claimant's claims. To avoid this possibility, plaintiffs ask the Court to bar any future payments from the remaining 80 percent of the escrow until a determination is made by the Court "to what extent, if any, such funds are necessary to provide plaintiffs and the members of the plaintiffs class with the restitution to which they are entitled." Complaint para. 45.
Count Two addresses the distribution of monies from the 20 percent escrow fund to the states pursuant to legislation enacted in 1982 and to the U.S. Treasury in connection with settlement of DOE enforcement claims.
Plaintiffs assert that a portion of that money should have been reserved to satisfy their claims. Plaintiffs seek to remedy this by having that sum withheld from future distributions to the federal government and the states.
Civil Action No. 88-0911. This complaint carries on the theme advanced in No. 87-2717, asserting that because of the DOE's refund procedures there may not be sufficient money in the escrow to pay their claims in full. Count One asserts that the 20 percent reserve will be insufficient to satisfy end-user claims. Counts Two and Three assert claims upon portions of the distributions made pursuant to the DOE settlements and to the Warner Amendment.
The principal difference between the two complaints is that No. 87-2717 is grounded on DOE's implicit rejection of plaintiffs' arguments in establishing refund procedures while No. 88-0911 is based on the explicit rejection of the same arguments in Ernest E. Allerkamp et al., 17 DOE para. 85,079 (1988) and Shell Oil Company, 17 DOE para. 85,204 (1988). The two decisions implemented the OHA's previously announced overcharge refund policy.
Civil Action No. 88-1339. The third complaint stems from three OHA's decisions awarding crude oil refunds to public transit authorities. See Tri-County Metropolitan Transit District, 17 DOE para. 85,331 (1988); Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, 17 DOE para. 85,243 (1988); Chicago Transit Authority, 17 DOE para. 85,243 (1988). Plaintiffs assert that since DOE has determined that 80 percent of the crude oil overcharge refunds will go to state and federal governments, other governmental units, including transit authorities, are not entitled to awards from the remaining 20 percent. Plaintiffs further argue that these and possible future awards may lead to an insufficiency in funds available to satisfy their claims.
The ripeness doctrine is designed to "prevent the courts, through the avoidance of premature adjudication, from entangling themselves in abstract disagreements over administrative policies, and also to protect the agencies from judicial interference until an administrative decision has been formalized and its effects felt in a concrete way by the challenging parties." Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner, 387 U.S. 136, 148-49, 18 L. Ed. 2d 681, 87 S. Ct. 1507 (1967).
As the Supreme Court has stated, ripeness is determined by balancing the fitness of the issues for judicial decision against the hardship to the parties of withholding court consideration. Abbott Laboratories, 387 U.S. at 149.
Relevant to the first prong of that test are decisions addressing the reviewability of agency actions threatening to cause harm at some future time.
"A hypothetical threat is not enough." United Public Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75, 90, 91 L. Ed. 754, 67 S. Ct. 556 (1947). If the alleged injury is a future one, "it must be clearly discernible." Martin Tractor Co. v. FEC, 200 U.S. App. D.C. 322, 627 F.2d 375, 379 (D.C. Cir. 1980). "The mere potential for future injury . . . is insufficient to render an issue ripe for review." Alascom, Inc. v. FCC, 234 U.S. App. D.C. 113, 727 F.2d 1212, 1217 (D.C. Cir. 1984).
Plaintiffs' broad claims that the escrow fund may prove insufficient are plainly unripe, since they involve nothing more than a mere potential for future injury.
Alascom, 727 F.2d at 1217. Cf. Getty Oil Co. v. DOE, 865 F.2d 270, 276 (TECA1988) (end-user claimants interests are insubstantial and not legally protected). The gravamen of all three complaints is the same: that because of various decisions by OHA, there will be insufficient money in escrow to satisfy plaintiffs' claims in full. The key issue here -- whether the reserve will meet plaintiffs' claims in full -- depends on the outcome of a number of future events, none of which can be anticipated or predicted with certainty.
Plaintiffs' assertions to the contrary are based on no more than their speculations as to what OHA will do in future cases. It is this very kind of hypothesizing about future events that the ripeness doctrine was intended to prevent. See Abbott Laboratories, 387 U.S. at 148-49 (ripeness requires that effects of agency decision "must be felt in a concrete way by the challenging parties").
Furthermore, plaintiffs' arguments about the future sufficiency of the escrow fund sit atop a pyramid of predictions and assumptions, one piled on top of another, about what claimants will do, what OHA will do and what the various courts that hears these claims will do.
Plaintiffs unintentionally have illustrated the hazards of such guesswork. In other pending litigation concerning crude oil overcharges, they asserted that the 20 percent reserve would most likely prove adequate to cover their claims
-- a position diametrically opposite to the one they now assert and one they now repudiate.
Judicial review at this point would constitute no more than an exercise in speculating about the outcome of the unpredictable and the likelihood of the unforeseeable. Because of the absence of a concrete or even reasonably foreseeable injury, the judicial interest in postponing review is strong.
To overcome the court's interest in postponing review, a plaintiff must show that delay would cause hardship. The hardship must be "immediate, direct and significant." Consol. Coal v. Fed. Mine Safety & H. Rev. Com'n, 263 U.S. App. D.C. 91, 824 F.2d 1071, 1077 (D.C. Cir. 1987) quoting, State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Dole, 255 U.S. App. D.C. 398, 802 F.2d 474, 480 (D.C. Cir. 1986). See also State Farm, 802 F.2d at 480 ("hardship will be found wanting if there are too many 'ifs' in the asserted causal chain linking the agency's action to the alleged hardship"). The hypothesized harm here -- the possibility that there might be insufficient money in the escrow -- is not direct or immediate. Nor is it clear that the harm would be significant.
Under similar circumstances, in RJG Cab Co. v. Hodel, No. 83-3265 (E.D. Pa. August 19, 1985), the court rejected on ripeness grounds a claim that the distribution of $ 200 million in overcharge funds to the states pursuant to the Warner Amendment unlawfully deprived plaintiffs of a right to claim a proportionate share of those funds. The court explained that the claims would become ripe only when each "application for a Special Refund is granted by the OHA and the OHA determines that there are insufficient funds [in] the fund to compensate [each plaintiff]." Slip. op. at 22-23 (emphasis added).
For these reasons, it is clear plaintiffs' complaints are unripe at this juncture.
Defendants also assert -- and the Court agrees -- that plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the payment of monies from the escrow. See Count II of No. 87-2717, Counts II and III of No. 88-0911 and all of No. 88-1339. See e.g. Payne 22, Inc. v. United States, 762 F.2d 91 (TECA1985) (rejecting a challenge to payment of $ 25 million to the U.S. Treasury in connection with a settlement of overcharge claims). In Atlantic Richfield Co. v. DOE, 618 F. Supp. 1199 (D.C. Del. 1985), the Court concluded that a claimant to a DOE escrow "lack standing to challenge OHA's distribution of funds to third parties." Id. at 1213 n. 23. Likewise, in RJG Cab Co. v. Hodel, end-users were prohibited from challenging the distribution of crude oil overcharge proceeds to the states pursuant to the Warner Amendment. See also Cities Service Co. v. DOE, 715 F.2d 572 (TECA1983); Jaymark Corp. v. Phillips Petroleum Co., C.A. No. 83-0592 (D.D.C. December 21, 1983).
Plaintiffs suggest that these cases are distinguishable because they are based on concerns related to the difficulty of the requisite economic analysis. The argument lacks a basis in fact. None of the cases cited turns on economic analysis problems. Equally unavailing are the plaintiffs' citations to standing decisions in civil rights and tax law, given an abundance of contrary authority in more closely analogous cases. Plaintiffs also rely on Florida Rock Industries Inc. v. John S. Herrington et al., 700 F. Supp. 605 (D.D.C. 1988) and Mid-America Dairymen Inc. v. Herrington, 878 F.2d 1448 (TECA1989). The decisions are unhelpful. In the first place, neither turns on, or even discusses, the standing doctrine. Second, both focus on issues not present here. In Florida Rock and Mid-America, for example, DOE had denied plaintiffs' claims; here, plaintiffs' claims have been approved.
Finally, the plaintiffs assert that the doctrine of judicial estoppel prevents defendants from raising their standing argument.
The claim rests on misinterpretations of both the facts and the law.
Plaintiffs wrongly assert that the defendants' standing arguments are inconsistent with two statements they made in connection with the Stripper Well litigation. The Stripper Well agreement to which defendants were parties provides, in part, that "OHA may reserve a reasonable portion of funds from each . . . proceeding to satisfy potentially provable claims" by "members of the plaintiffs' class". In a filing with the Stripper Well Court, defendants apparently promised that claimants to crude oil overcharges "can challenge the soundness of OHA's application of that policy in ruling on the claimant's application for a refund." Mem. of July 18, 1988 at 28-29.
Neither statement discusses standing; both are vague and short on substance or specifics. Such wispy promises cannot preclude a challenge to plaintiffs' standing to raise these issues in this forum. In any event, the Stripper Well agreement supports -- rather than undermines -- plaintiffs' standing arguments. The agreement explicitly provides that it "confers no . . . enforcement rights upon any non-Party." Paragraph VI.B. The plaintiffs are non-parties to the agreement and, thus, have no enforcement rights under the terms of the agreement.
Judicial estoppel may be applied only when the earlier statements are unequivocally inconsistent with the later ones. Matter of Cassidy, 892 F.2d 637, 641 (7th Cir. 1990). Since neither of the prior statements here addresses or even mentions standing, they cannot be described as unequivocally or clearly inconsistent with defendants' standing argument.
The purpose of judicial estoppel is to prevent parties from "playing fast and loose" with the Court. There is absolutely no evidence that defendants have done so. Moreover, even if defendants were estopped, the intervenors would not be. Finally, standing is jurisdictional. If the defendants were estopped from raising the issue, this Court would be obliged to consider it sua sponte.
In sum, it is clear that none of the complaints are ripe for review and that plaintiffs lack standing to bring Count II of No. 87-2717, Counts II and III of No. 88-0911 and all of No. 88-1339. Counts III and IV of No. 87-2717, moreover, are moot.
Accordingly, it is this 14th day of May 1990
ORDERED That the complaints be and they are hereby dismissed.