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Riggs v. Curran

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

July 7, 2016

BENJAMIN RIGGS, LAURENCE EHRHARDT, and RHODE ISLAND MANUFACTURERS ASSOCIATION, Plaintiffs,
v.
MARGARET CURRAN, PAUL ROBERTI, and HERBERT DESIMONE, JR., in their official capacities as members of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission; NARRAGANSETT ELECTRIC COMPANY, INC. d/b/a NATIONAL GRID; and DEEPWATER WIND BLOCK ISLAND, LLC, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          WILLIAM E. SMITH, Chief Judge

         Before the Court are Motions to Dismiss filed by Defendant Deepwater Wind Block Island, LLC (“Deepwater Wind”) (ECF No. 14)[1]and Defendants Margaret Curran, Paul Roberti, and Herbert DeSimone, Jr., in their official capacities as members of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (collectively, the “PUC Defendants”) (ECF No. 21). Plaintiffs filed Oppositions (ECF Nos. 22 and 23), and Deepwater Wind and the PUC Defendants both filed Replies (ECF Nos. 28 and 29). Additionally, the parties filed post-hearing memoranda. (ECF Nos. 37, 38, 39, and 40.) For the reasons that follow, Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss are GRANTED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs are suing the PUC Defendants, Narragansett Electric Company, Inc. d/b/a National Grid (“National Grid”), and Deepwater Wind for injunctive and declaratory relief. They claim that the PUC Defendants violated the Federal Power Act (“FPA”), the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (“PURPA”), and the Supremacy Clause and Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution, when they issued an order on August 16, 2010, approving a power purchase agreement (“PPA”) between Deepwater Wind and National Grid related to a new wind farm off the coast of Block Island (the “PUC’s Order”). According to Plaintiffs, this agreement has above-market costs, which are in violation of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (“FERC”) policies, and will result in a significant increase in their electric bills. Prior to filing this action, Plaintiffs twice petitioned FERC to initiate an enforcement action on the grounds that the PUC’s Order violated the FPA, PURPA, and the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution. FERC declined to act on either petition, and Plaintiffs filed their Complaint in this Court one day short of five years from the date of the PUC’s Order, on August 15, 2015. Defendants have moved to dismiss, arguing that the statute of limitations has expired and that Plaintiffs do not have standing. The PUC Defendants further argue that they are shielded by quasi-judicial immunity.

         II. Discussion

         The parties first dispute which statute of limitations applies to this action. Deepwater Wind asserts that the Court should apply Rhode Island’s three-year personal injury statute of limitations, while Plaintiffs contend that the appropriate limitations period is five years pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2462, which they claim applies to the “enforcement of federal statutes.” (Pls.’ Opp’n to Deepwater Wind’s Mot. 12, ECF No. 22.)

         As an initial matter, Plaintiffs’ § 1983 claims are clearly governed by the three-year statute of limitations. See, e.g., Rodriguez v. Providence Police Dep’t, C.A. No. 08-03 S, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2657, *10 (D.R.I. Jan. 11, 2011) (stating that claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 are “subject to Rhode Island’s three-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions”). The other causes of action present a closer question, but, ultimately, for the reasons outlined below, the Court agrees with Defendants that the Rhode Island personal injury statute of limitations should apply to those claims as well.

         “When Congress has not established a time limitation for a federal cause of action, the settled practice has been to adopt a local time limitation as federal law if it is not inconsistent with federal law or policy to do so.” Barrett ex rel. Estate of Barrett v. United States, 462 F.3d 28, 38 (1st Cir. 2006) (quoting Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 266-67 (1985)). The question here is whether Plaintiffs’ claims fall under the federal five-year statute of limitations set out in 28 U.S.C. § 2462, or whether the Court must look to the state law analog.

         By its own text, 28 U.S.C. § 2462 applies only to “the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, ” not all federal statutes; and Plaintiffs here do not seek to enforce a “civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.” All of the cases that Plaintiffs cite are either: 1) cases where the parties agreed that the statute of limitations in § 2462 applied;[2] 2) government enforcement actions;[3] or 3) citizens’ suits brought to enforce statutes where the citizens “stood in the shoes” of the government.[4] (See Deepwater Wind’s Reply 5-7, ECF No. 29.) This action does not fall into any of these categories. Plaintiffs cite no case in which the § 2462 statute of limitations has been used instead of a state law statute of limitations (absent agreement of the parties) in a case like this.

         Simply put, this suit is not an enforcement action or citizens’ suit. Plaintiffs’ reliance on a statement in FERC’s Notice that its decision “means that Mr. Riggs himself may bring an enforcement action against the Rhode Island Commission in the appropriate court” is incorrect. (See Pls.’ Post-Hearing Mem. 4, ECF No. 37.) As Defendants correctly note, “[t]his boilerplate language, which is specific to actions under PURPA, does not and cannot alter the true nature of Plaintiffs’ complaint: they allege personal injury from violations of federal statutes and the Constitution; they do not challenge a FERC order or seek to enforce a FERC requirement.” (Deepwater Wind’s Post-Hearing Mem. 3, ECF No. 39.) Because Plaintiffs do not seek to enforce a “civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, ” the Court finds that 28 U.S.C. § 2462 does not apply, and it must look to an appropriate analog under state law.

         Rhode Island law takes an expansive view of “injury”:

[T]he phrase “injuries to the person” . . . is to be construed comprehensively and as contemplating its application to actions involving injuries that are other than physical. Its purpose is to include within that period of limitation actions brought for injuries resulting from invasions of rights that inhere in man as a rational being, that is, rights to which one is entitled by reason of being a person in the eyes of the law. Such rights, of course, are to be distinguished from those which accrue to an individual by reason of some peculiar status or by virtue of an interest created by contract or property.

Commerce Oil Ref. Corp. v. Miner, 199 A.2d 606, 610 (R.I. 1964). The Rhode Island Supreme Court has used this definition of “injury” to apply the three-year limitations period to an action involving utility costs. See Paul v. City of Woonsocket, 745 A.2d 169, 172 (R.I. 2000). In Paul, the plaintiffs contended that a tapping fee for water service connection to the city’s water distribution main constituted an impermissible tax. The Court found this to be an economic injury and applied the three-year statute of limitations; in doing so, it rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that it should apply the limitations period set out in 9 R.I. Gen. Laws § 9-1- 13(a), which provides that “[e]xcept as otherwise specially provided, all civil actions shall be commenced within ten (10) years next after the cause of action shall accrue, and not after.” Id. at 172. This Court has likewise used the definition of “injury” established in Commerce Oil to apply the three-year personal injury statute of limitations - rather than the limitations period for a breach of contract - to claims alleged under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, which “prohibits racial discrimination in the making and enforcement of private contracts.” Partin v. St. Johnsbury Co., 447 F.Supp. 1297, 1300 (D.R.I. 1978). Furthermore, the First Circuit has applied a state tort law three-year statute of limitations to a PURPA action. See Greenwood ex rel. Estate of Greenwood v. New Hampshire Pub. Utilities Comm’n, 527 F.3d 8, 14 (1st Cir. 2008) (“Greenwood’s claim is most analogous to a New Hampshire law claim of tortious interference with contractual relations, that is, that the PUC rescission order interfered with Greenwood’s advantageous contractual relationship with PSNH. Such a claim is governed by New Hampshire’s general three-year statute of limitations.”).

         The crux of Plaintiffs’ claim is that Defendants’ actions will cause them economic injury. There is no indication in § 2462 or the cases cited by Plaintiffs that it would be “inconsistent with federal law or policy, ” Barrett, 462 F.3d at 38, to impose the three-year Rhode Island statute of limitations for personal injury. ...


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