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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.

          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 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 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (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). The attachments to Colonial's motion to dismiss show that PHMSA later issued an amended corrective action order to Colonial, which-in addition to the requirements from the previous order-requires Colonial to implement an approved remedial work plan for the pipeline that identifies potential and existing threats. (Doc. 15-2 at 9). Additionally, Colonial has submitted and continues to submit environmental testing analysis to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (“ADEM”). (Doc. 15-3 at 8-12; Doc. 15-6).

         On February 27, 2017, Colonial and Valley Creek entered into an “Access Agreement.” (Doc. 15-7). The Access Agreement sets forth a framework for Colonial, under the supervision of ADEM and other regulatory agencies, to perform remediation efforts on Valley Creek's land that was affected by the gasoline leak. The Access Agreement binds the parties for six years or until Colonial receives a no-further-action letter from ADEM, whichever comes first. A no-further-action letter from ADEM would indicate that the remediation efforts had reached ADEM's standards for environmental safety. If Colonial has not finished the remediation in six years and ADEM has not issued a letter, the Access Agreement contains two one-year options to extend the agreement that include further compensation for Valley Creek. The Access Agreement states that Colonial shall provide full compensation to Valley Creek for the use of the property, “excluding only an additional obligation for Colonial to pay [Valley Creek] for damage to the Property and associated loss in value of the Property should same exist after the Work and any additional work on the property not covered by this Agreement.” (Id. at 4).

         The parties do not dispute that the Access Agreement is still in effect and that Colonial's remediation work is ongoing.

         In October 2017, the parties also entered into a “Tolling Agreement” related to Colonial's remediation efforts. (Doc. 1-6). The Tolling Agreement states that Colonial is conducting the work covered in the Access Agreement in coordination with ADEM, but “the full extent of the contamination and remediation that may be needed to correct or contain it is still being investigated.” (Id. at 2). The Tolling Agreement notes Valley Creek's desire to avoid litigation “at the current time, ” but states that Valley Creek has not waived its claims related to the gasoline leak and that the parties agree to toll the statute of limitations for those claims until 60 days after the expiration of the Access Agreement. The Tolling Agreement also states that the agreement terminates if Valley Creek files suit during the tolling period.

         In its complaint, Valley Creek primarily contends that the gasoline spill damaged its property by contaminating it with toxic, carcinogenic chemicals. Valley Creek asserts that the contamination has not been remediated and that the remediation efforts have further damaged the property. Overall, Valley Creek asserts that the damage from the spill has ...


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