On July 28, 2017 the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed two lower court rulings and remanded two cases pertaining to the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, concluding that plaintiffs’ claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of their federal rights were not preempted by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) (Beatrice Boler, et al. v. Darnell Earley, et al., No. 16-1684 and Melissa Mays, et al. v. Rick Snyder, et al., No. 17-1144, 6th Cir., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 13691).

Plaintiffs, residents of Flint affected by contaminated city water, brought suit against various state and local officials and entities, alleging violation of their constitutional rights, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, along with other claims. In Boler, the district court determined that the Plaintiffs’ § 1983 claims were preempted by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Relying on its preemption analysis in Boler, the district court also dismissed the Mays case. The two cases were consolidated on appeal.

Plaintiffs allege that the defendants, who are all employees of the state of Michigan or the city of Flint, were acting under the color of law and “deliberately deprived” the class of the rights and guarantees secured by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in that they “deprived plaintiffs of life, liberty and property without due process of law when they took” safe drinking water and replaced it with “what they knew to be a highly toxic alternative solely for fiscal purposes.” Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the water provided from the Flint River contained high levels of lead.

On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the district court misapplied the standard enunciated by the Supreme Court in a line of cases that concluded with Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee, 555 U.S. 246, 252 (2009). In Fitzgerald, the Court explained the distinction between § 1983 claims premised on constitutional violations and those based on statutory violations in determining whether a § 1983 claim is precluded. “In those cases in which the § 1983 claim is based on a statutory right, evidence of such congressional intent may be found directly in the statute creating the right, or inferred from the statute’s creation of a comprehensive enforcement scheme that is incompatible with individual enforcement under § 1983.” Fitzgerald, 555 U.S. at 252. The Court in Fitzgerald then explained:

In cases in which the § 1983 claim alleges a constitutional violation, lack of congressional intent may be inferred from a comparison of the rights and protections of the statute and those existing under the Constitution. Where the contours of such rights and protections diverge in significant ways, it is not likely that Congress intended to displace § 1983 suits enforcing constitutional rights. Our conclusions regarding congressional intent can be confirmed by a statute’s context.

Id. at 252–53 (quotation marks and citations omitted).

In determining whether plaintiffs’ claims were preempted by the SDWA, the Sixth Circuit adhered closely to the framework set out in Fitzgerald. Accordingly, the Court began its analysis by finding that there is 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. According to the Court, this in turn “informs our next step – evaluating the comprehensiveness of the remedial scheme provided by the statute.”  Op at 14.

Turning to the remedial scheme set out in the SDWA, the Sixth Circuit found that “the remedial schemes in the SDWA are not so comprehensive as to demonstrate congressional intent to preclude remedies under § 1983 for constitutional violations.” Op. at 17 The Court said: “The SDWA’s remedies are more limited than those generally available under § 1983, as the statute provides for injunctive relief only, not for recovery of damages or other monetary relief available to Plaintiffs with successful § 1983 claims. Though the statute contains a private right of action, it also includes a savings clause establishing that its private action does not restrict rights a person may exercise outside the SDWA. The availability of a private judicial remedy in the SDWA, moreover, does not conclusively establish congressional intent to preclude relief under § 1983.”  Op at 16.

This left the Court with the last consideration set out in Fitzgerald – a comparison of the substantive rights and protections of the SDWA to the protections provided by the relevant constitutional provisions. The Court concluded that there is no textual indication in the SDWA that Congress expressly chose to preempt § 1983 claims and that the provisions of the remedial scheme do not demonstrate such an intention. Accordingly, the Court found that the contours of the rights and protections found in the constitutional claims diverge from those provided by the SDWA such that it inferred a lack of congressional intention to foreclose § 1983 claims.

As a result, the Court found that the SDWA did not preclude plaintiffs § 1983 claims and reversed the district court’s dismissal of their Complaints on that basis.