On September 26, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals Third Circuit upheld a District Court (Minard RunIV) ruling that granted appellee mineral rights owners’ motion for declaratory judgment because the doctrine of the law of the case precluded the appellant Forest Service’s arguments. Minard Run Oil v. United States Forest Service, 2013 WL 5357066 (3rd Cir. Sept. 26, 2013). In 2009, the owners of mineral rights under land in the Alleghany National Forest brought suit (Minard Run II) against the United States Forest Services to prevent the Forest Service from analyzing drilling plans pursuant to NEPA. This analysis was required by a settlement agreement between the United States Forest Services and an environmental advocacy group earlier that year. The District Court found (Minard Run II) the Forest Services did not possess regulatory authority over natural gas drilling and that NEPA analysis did not apply to such drilling. The Third Circuit upheld this ruling (Minard Run III).
In the current appeal, the Forest service argued the District Court (Minard Run IV) improperly applied the law of the case for three reasons: 1) the parties were given no notice that the preliminary injunction issue would reach the merits; 2) the preliminary injunction general standard is “likelihood of success,” not actual success as required by law of the case; 3) the only question that reach the merits was whether the drilling moratorium was required by NEPA and consistent with the APA.
The Third Circuit upheld the order granting declaratory judgment in favor of the mineral owners because it found the District Court (Minard Run IV) properly applied the law of the case. The court reasoned that the parties were on notice and that the actual success standards for application of law of the case were met because prior rulings held the court could decide the merits of the injunction if the appeal contained “a question of law” and “the facts are established or of no controlling relevance.” Here, the Third Circuit (in Minard Run III) had decisively resolved the preliminary injunction issue and the controlling case precedents provide notice to the Forest Service that the issue could reach a decision on the merits. The court further reasoned that the Court in Minard Run II ruled on legal issues besides NEPA and the APA because ample reasoning was given about statutory interpretation as applied to legal claims by the District Court (in Minard Run II) and then upheld by the Circuit Court (Minard Run III). Therefore the District Court (in Minard Run IV) did not err in its application of law of the case and properly ordered declaratory judgment in favor of the mineral rights owners.
Written by: Garrett Lent, Research Assistant
Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center