Either/Or: Third Circuit Reads Rapanos as Establishing Two Alternative Tests for Federal Regulatory Jurisdiction Over Wetlands

The Clean Water Act regulates the placement of fill into the “waters of the United States.” That term has come to include wetlands — or at least some wetlands. The Supreme Court’s last attempt, in Rapanos v. United States, to clarify which wetlands fall within the statute’s coverage caused great confusion, as the five Justices who agreed on the judgment (a four-Justice plurality led by Justice Scalia, and Justice Kennedy, who concurred separately) generated two separate tests for jurisdiction. Which test should lower courts apply? In an opinion released on October 31, the Third Circuit said, “both” — if the wetlands in question satisfy either Justice Scalia’s test or Justice Kennedy’s test, they fall within the statute’s reach.

Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion Rapanos, decided in 2006, took a “wet” view of “waters of the United States,” restricting that term to “relatively permanent” water bodies that formed “geographic features.” Wetlands, under this test, fall within the statute’s scope only if they have “a continuous surface connection” to such bodies of water. By contrast, Justice Kennedy’s “dry” test construed the statute to cover any wetlands that have a “significant nexus” with “waters of the United States, i.e., that the wetlands, alone or in combination with similar lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of covered waters.

In United States v. Donovan, the Third Circuit affirmed a district court summary judgment against Delaware landowner David Donovan, who had been fined $250,000 and ordered to remove 0.771 acres of fill that he had placed on his property without obtaining a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. Donovan argued that the multiple opinions in Rapanos failed to provide a governing legal standard for Clean Water Act jurisdiction, and that therefore pre-Rapanos case law should govern. The Third Circuit disagreed, and, adopting the position taken by the First Circuit and the Eighth Circuit, held that the Corps of Engineers could assert jurisdiction if the wetlands on Donovan’s property met either test set forth in Rapanos. The Court further held that the government’s evidence indisputably showed that Donovan’s wetlands satisfied the “significant nexus” test, and thus did not have to decide whether there was any genuine issue as to whether they satisfied the Rapanos plurality’s test.

Donovan continues an emerging circuit split over how to read Rapanos. Unlike the First, Eighth and (now) Third Circuits, the Seventh Circuit and the Eleventh Circuit have held that Justice Kennedy’s test alone supplies the governing legal standard, applying the Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in United States v. Marks, and concluding that it provides the narrowest grounds for the Supreme Court’s judgment in Rapanos. The Donovan Court and the circuit courts with which it agreed concluded that Marks is inapplicable because either of the two tests in Rapanos could be seen as the narrowest grounds for the judgment — in some cases, one test would be satisfied but the other would not, and in other cases, the reverse could be true. No circuit court has adopted Justice Scalia’s “wet’ test as the sole governing standard.

John H. Klock is a Director in the Gibbons Real Property & Environmental Department. Paul M. Hauge, an Associate in the Gibbons Real Property & Environmental Department, co-authored this post.