Agency of Natural Resources v. Towns – Case Brief Summary (Vermont)

In Agency of Natural Resources v. Towns, 168 Vt. 449, 724 A.2d 1022 (1998), Towns advanced several arguments, including claims that there was no violation under applicable law, that the Agency had no power to issue the order, and that the action was time-barred.

The Court reversed and remanded for additional findings based solely on Towns' statute of limitations claim and declined at that point to address his other claims.

The Environmental Court has determined that the action was indeed timely, and now Towns appeals that determination and renews each of his original claims for relief.

Under 10 V.S.A. § 8015, an environmental enforcement action must be "commenced within the latter of: (1) six years from the date the violation is or reasonably should have been discovered; or (2) six years from the date a continuing violation ceases."

Accordingly, in Towns the Court held the sole issue was whether the Agency's enforcement action was brought within six years from the date the violation was or reasonably should have been discovered.

The Court examined whether an ANR enforcement action could be brought against a former property owner more than six years after he had allegedly violated state environmental laws.

A subsequent owner of the property had first reported the possible violation nine years prior to the action, but the ANR had not acted.

The Court stated this well-settled general rule governing the accrual of actions:

A cause of action is generally said to accrue upon the "'discovery of facts constituting the basis of the cause of action or the existence of facts sufficient to put a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence on inquiry which, if pursued, would lead to the discovery.'"

Thus, the statute of limitations begins to run when the plaintiff has notice of information that would put a reasonable person on inquiry, and the plaintiff is ultimately "chargeable with notice of all the facts that could have been obtained by the exercise of reasonable diligence in prosecuting the inquiry." (Id. at 452, 724 A.2d at 1024.)

The Court remanded the case for fact-finding to determine whether the ANR knew or should have known - by virtue of the reports of possible violations from the subsequent landowner - about the violations the landowner may have committed nine years earlier, and thus whether the action was time-barred by the statute of limitations. Id. at 454, 724 A.2d at 1025.