This week the Supreme Court denied certiorari in a case where nuns filed their Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) case opposing a pipeline across their property in the wrong venue and ignored the required dispute resolution process.

 

On February 19, 2019, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear a case brought by a Catholic organization which had sought a religious exemption from a regulation that permitted a private company to use eminent domain to run a high-volume natural pipeline across their property.

Under the Natural Gas Act, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can authorize private developers to construct, operate, and maintain interstate natural gas pipeline projects. Before granting authority, the Commission must hold public hearings and parties can voice their objections. If the Commission proceeds with certifying the request, then the party that opposes the project can file for judicial review either in the District of Columbia Circuit or the circuit where the natural gas company is located.  Until then, the circuit court does not have jurisdiction.

In this case, the Adorers of the Blood of Christ (Adorers), an order of Catholic nuns, which owns a parcel of land in Columbus, Pennsylvania, objected to the pipeline on grounds that it violated their religious beliefs require care for creation. However, they never raised the issue in front of the Commission. Instead, they directly filed suit under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  The District Court dismissed the claim for lack of jurisdiction because the nuns had not gone through the proper process of first objecting to the Commission decision and then filing in the District of Columbia or the circuit where the natural gas company was located.

The Adorers then appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The Circuit upheld the dismissal stating that filing a RFRA claim does not replace the necessity of following the "specific and exclusive jurisdictional provision prescribing a particular procedure for judicial review of an agency's action."

By the time the courts had ruled that the Adorers had followed the wrong legal pathway, the statute of limitations had expired on the opportunity to file a procedurally correct objection.

Takeaway:  If there are regulations in place that specify that a particular dispute resolution must be followed, RFRA provides no escape from following the administrative adjudication process. It is incumbent on parties seeking to challenge a regulatory decision to scrupulously follow the prescribed administrative process for resolving the dispute. Had the Adorers timely objected to the Commission decision and filed in the proper venue, they would have had the opportunity to raise a RFRA argument. There's no guarantee that they would have ultimately prevailed against the pipeline which will now cross their property, but at least they could have had the chance to be heard. In failing to understand and follow the administrative procedure, the nuns fell into a procedural trap for the unwary.

These processes are often regarded as "technicalities" or "merely procedural" but they are designed to streamline the legal process and reduce the potential for confusion and contradictory results by requiring parties to follow a single process rather than permitting multiple claims to be filed in multiple jurisdictions to address the same projects.

Third Circuit Case Rule:  "[W]e hold that a claim under RFRA, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(c), brought pursuant to the general jurisdictional grant of a federal question under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, does not abrogate or provide an exception to a specific and exclusive jurisdictional provision prescribed by Congress for judicial review of an agency’s action."

 

Supreme Court Caption: Adorers of the Blood of Christ v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, (Docket No. 18-548, certiorari denied 2/19/2019)

Third Circuit Caption: Adorers of the Blood of Christ v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Docket No. 17-3163, decided 7/25/18)

 

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