Supreme Court Observations: Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms

Guest Commentary

Kevin T. Haroff, Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P.*

In a 7-1 decision (J. Breyer abstaining), the U.S. Supreme Court today confirmed the importance of using a traditional judicial balancing test when deciding requests for injunctive relief.  In Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, No. 09-475 (June 21, 2001), the Court specifically addressed when injunctive relief is appropriate under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”).  This is the first case in which the Court looked at how the government regulates genetically modified seed products. 

In 2006, Geertson Seed Farms sued the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”), challenging a decision to deregulate Roundup Ready Alfalfa (“RRA”).  In 2004, Monsanto and Forage Genetics petitioned APHIS to grant RRA non-regulated status.  The district court granted partial summary judgment, holding that APHIS had violated NEPA by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) before deregulating RRA.

The court issued a permanent injunction in 2007, prohibiting the use of RRA on a nation-wide basis.  While the court noted that “an injunction does not automatically issue” based on “a finding of a NEPA violation,” it suggested that in a “run of the mill NEPA case,” the balancing of relative harms often “favor[s the] issuance of an injunction.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, and Monsanto petitioned the Supreme Court for review. The Washington Legal Foundation (“WLF”) filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the petition.  The Supreme Court granted review on January 15, 2010, and WLF filed a brief in support of the petitioner on the merits.

The Supreme Court dismissed arguments that petitioners lacked standing because the district court had vacated APHIS’s original deregulation decision.  The Court found petitioners had shown sufficient injury-in-fact to support standing.  The Court also found that the district court abused its discretion in enjoining APHIS to prohibit the planting of RRA.  The Supreme Court confirmed that before issuing injunctive relief, courts must satisfy the four factor test described in eBay v. MercExchange, which requires a plaintiff to show that considering the balance of the hardships between the plaintiff and defendant, a remedy in equity is warranted. 

The Court stressed that injunctions are drastic remedies that should not be granted as a matter of course, citing Weinberger v. Romero-Barcelo, and that courts must conduct their own equitable balancing in cases brought under NEPA.  The Geertson Seed decision is a reminder that federal courts cannot abdicate their traditional roles in deciding hard cases brought under NEPA or any other federal environmental statute. 

*Mr. Haroff acted as Counsel of Record for WLF on a pro bono basis on its amicus brief supporting granting of review in Geertson Seed Farms.

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