Minnesota Court of Appeals Affirms Summary Judgment in “Wild Rice Rule” Case
Posted on December 17, 2012
On December 17, 2012, the Minnesota Court of Appeals released an unpublished decision in the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s lawsuit against MPCA challenging the “Wild Rice Rule,” Minn. R. 7050.0224, subp. 2. Minn. Chamber of Commerce v. MPCA, No. A12-0950, slip op. (Minn. Ct. App. Dec. 17, 2012). The Wild Rice Rule sets a numeric standard for sulfates (SO4) of 10 mg/L applicable to “water used for production of wild rice during periods when the rice may be susceptible to damage by high sulfate levels.” The Chamber, on behalf of its mining and other members affected by the rule, sued the agency in February 2011, claiming that the Wild Rice Rule is unconstitutionally vague and that the agency exceeded its statutory authority in proposing to apply the rule to waters containing naturally occurring (as opposed to actively cultivated) stands of wild rice. The Chamber also sought declaratory judgment that the agency may not impose sulfate discharge limitations in wastewater discharge permits unless the discharges are to those waters of the State used for agricultural irrigation to produce wild rice, and the discharges are occurring during those times when wild rice is susceptible to damage from high sulfate levels.” The district court granted summary judgment to MPCA and defendant-intervenor WaterLegacy, finding that the agency did not exceed its statutory authority, that the Wild Rice Rule is not unconstitutionally vague, and that the Chamber was not entitled to equitable relief or to a declaratory judgment.
The court of appeals held that the lower court erred in addressing the Chamber’s claims on the merits but nonetheless affirmed the grant of summary judgment. The appellate court held first that the Chamber’s challenge to the Wild Rice Rule was not ripe because MPCA had not actually attempted to enforce the Rule (the agency had “requested” Chamber members to conduct certain rice-surveys). On the same basis, the court held that the Chamber was not entitled to a declaratory judgment because there was no “justiciable controversy” until the agency actually enforced or threatened to enforce the Rule. Declaratory judgment was also not appropriate, the court held, because the Chamber had failed to exhaust administrative remedies, including Minn. Stat. § 14.44, which the court described as providing a mechanism to seek declaratory judgment as to the facial validity of an administrative rule before any enforcement action occurs. Finally, the court determined that the Chamber’s action was moot on account of recent action by the Minnesota Legislature requiring further research and rulemaking, and eventual amendment of the Wild Rice Rule. 2011 Minn. Laws 1st Spec. Sess. ch. 2, art. 4, § 32, at 71–73. The Court stated that this process “will amend the Wild Rice Rule to address all of the issues raised by the Chamber.”