Congress stripped district courts’ jurisdiction to hear the claims of landowners challenging provisions of the Natural Gas Act, under which Mountain Valley Pipeline obtained administrative approval to begin construction. The district court properly dismissed their suit.
The Plaintiffs are landowners along the path of a proposed natural gas pipeline to be constructed by Appellee Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC. After finding that the pipeline construction “is or will be required by … public convenience and necessity,” as directed by the Natural Gas Act, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a Certificate to the Pipeline transferring the power of eminent domain and allowing construction to begin.
The Plaintiffs sued to challenge the constitutionality of various provisions of the Act. However, the district court dismissed the action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, on the ground that their claims must instead be brought through the agency review process laid out in the Act.
As the district court concluded, Congress implicitly divested the district court of jurisdiction to hear claims of the kind brought by the Plaintiffs and instead intended for such claims to come to federal court through the Act’s administrative review scheme.
Like the statute analyzed in Bennett v. SEC, 844 F.3d 174 (4th Cir. 2016), the Act specifically allows for district court jurisdiction over certain actions – showing that Congress knows how to allow such jurisdiction when it intends to do so. For issues related to review of a Certificate, it granted “exclusive” jurisdiction to the appropriate court of appeals, but only after the conclusion of the Commission’s review process. Under the Bennett analysis, then, the Act evinces a legislative intent to remove district-court jurisdiction. The Plaintiffs claims are of the type Congress intended to be reviewed within this structure.
The Commission’s inability to resolve the Plaintiffs’ constitutional claims does not mean that this statutory scheme deprives them of meaningful judicial review. Moreover, the Plaintiffs cite no evidence or detailed arguments related to potential injuries they may suffer, why those injuries are not recompensable under the statutory structure, and how the Plaintiffs’ case differs from seemingly contrary cases.
In addition, because the Plaintiffs’ constitutional claims are the means by which they seek to vacate the Pipeline’s Certificate, their claims are not wholly collateral to the Act’s statutory review scheme.
Finally, the Commission had the ability to revoke its issuance of a Certificate based on threshold questions within its expertise. If that had occurred, the Plaintiffs’ constitutional claims would have been moot, without requiring a court to rule on them at all.
Accordingly, under the two-step analysis set forth in Bennett, Congress intended to divest district courts of jurisdiction to hear the claims pursued by the Plaintiffs and instead intended those claims to be brought under the statutory review scheme established by the Natural Gas Act. The district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to hear their claims and appropriately dismissed them.
Berkley v. Mountain Valley Pipeline LLC, Case No. 18-1042, July 25, 2018. 4th Cir. (Wynn), from WDVA at Roanoke (Dillon). Justin Michael Lugar for Appellants; Susanna Y. Chu and Wade Wallihan Massie for Appellees. VLW No. 018-2-155, 16 pp.