Courts Cripple Environmental Protection Laws

The appellate courts of Michigan have decided that the Michigan Environmental Protection Act does not allow attorneys fees to be awarded to citizens who file suit under the Act to protect the environment. The courts’ decisions will effectively cripple the citizen suit provisions of our landmark state Environmental Protection Act.

In this Act, our legislature gave each citizen the right to sue to protect the environment from harm. The Act does not allow for the award of damages. It only allows citizens to sue a polluter to get a court order to stop the pollution or to order the defendant to do things differently to protect the environment. The legislature intended that the citizens would be actively involved in filing these suits.

The legislature said in the statute that if the citizens who filed suit were successful, or won, then the court could award “costs” of the action to the citizens. In the early years of the Act, this was interpreted to mean that the court could award the attorney fees incurred by the citizens in bringing the suit.

Now the courts have said that “costs” just means taxable costs, which is nearly nothing and includes no attorney fees. As the result, the only way citizens can file suit under the Act now is if they can find an attorney to do the work for no fee, or if they pay the attorney fee themselves.

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