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Valley Creek Land & Timber, LLC v. Colonial Pipeline Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

January 7, 2020

VALLEY CREEK LAND & TIMBER, LLC, Plaintiff,
v.
COLONIAL PIPELINE COMPANY, Defendant.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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          Steven A Martino, Taylor — Martino PC, Mobile, AL, David M. McMullan, John W Barrett, Barrett Law Group, P.A., Lexington, MS, Gerald M. Abdalla, Abdalla Law, PLLC, Ridgeland, MS, Richard R. Barrett, Law Offices of Richard R. Barrett, PLLC, Oxford, MS, for Plaintiff.

          Alan D Mathis, Butler Snow LLP, Birmingham, AL, Meaghan Goodwin Boyd, Phil Sandick, W. Clay Massey, Alston & Bird, LLP, Atlanta, GA, for Defendant.

         MEMORANDUM OPINION

         KARON OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         As anyone who has tried to make guacamole with an unripe avocado can tell you, sometimes doing something too early is just as bad as doing something too late. An avocado that has not yet ripened will leave even the best cooks with a guacamole that is unappealing in both texture and taste. However, savvy chefs can avoid this culinary catastrophe with the addition of one extra ingredient: patience. In this case, the plaintiff did not exercise patience. As a result, this case is just like an avocado that will ruin an otherwise perfect guacamole— unripe.

         This matter comes before the court on Defendant Colonial Pipeline Company's motion to dismiss Plaintiff Valley Creek Land & Timber, LLC's complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. 15). In its complaint, Valley Creek alleges that a gasoline spill from one of Defendant Colonial Pipeline Company's gasoline pipelines contaminated Valley Creek's property and diminished the property's value. (Doc. 1). Colonial raises multiple arguments for dismissing the complaint, including an argument that the case should be dismissed as unripe because of ongoing contractual mitigation efforts. (Doc. 15). For the reasons stated below, the court will GRANT Colonial's motion to dismiss without prejudice because Valley Creek's case has not yet become ripe for adjudication.

         I. Standard of Review

         Colonial moves to dismiss Valley Creek's complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) for

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failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). However, a dismissal on ripeness grounds more properly falls under the umbrella of a Rule 12(b)(1) dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1); Reahard v. Lee Cty., 30 F.3d 1412, 1415 (11th Cir. 1994) (stating that the issue of ripeness goes to whether a district court has subject matter jurisdiction). But, the choice of which rule to apply makes little practical difference because the court applies a standard of review akin to that of Rule 12(b)(6) when a defendant facially attacks subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1). Carmichael v. Kellogg, Brown & Root Services, Inc., 572 F.3d 1271, 1279 (11th Cir. 2009).

         The Supreme Court has explained that "[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to `state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). A complaint states a facially plausible claim for relief "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (citation omitted).

         As reflected in this Memorandum Opinion, documents attached to the pleadings influence the considerations in this case. In considering a Rule 12(b) motion, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure generally limit the court to assessing the face of the complaint and its attachments. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b); Day v. Taylor, 400 F.3d 1272, 1275-76 (11th Cir. 2005). However, the court may also consider, without converting the motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment, documents attached to a motion to dismiss that are central to the complaint and undisputed in their authenticity. Thaeter v. Palm Beach Cty. Sheriff's Office, 449 F.3d 1342, 1352 (11th Cir. 2006); Day, 400 F.3d at 1276. The documents in this case are all either attached to the complaint or central to the complaint, and neither party disputes their authenticity. Therefore, the court can consider the documents without converting Colonial's motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment.

         II. Factual Background

         Valley Creek, a land and timber investment company, states in its complaint that it owns more than 5,000 acres of property in Shelby County, Alabama, which it bought as an investment ultimately intended for residential and commercial development. (Doc. 1). Colonial has a gasoline pipeline that runs near Valley Creek's property. On September 9, 2016, a mining inspector discovered that Colonial's pipeline had sprung a leak. The leak released approximately 300,000 gallons of gasoline onto Valley Creek's property.

         After the leak, multiple federal, state, and local agencies engaged in a response effort. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration ("PHMSA")—a federal agency overseeing pipelines—issued a corrective action order to Colonial. The corrective action order enumerated the details of the leak and required Colonial to, among other things, take immediate action to address the leak, complete an extensive failure analysis, and submit quarterly reports to the agency. (Doc. 1-1). ...


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