JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
The citizen suit provision of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA), 90 Stat. 2825, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 6972 (1982 ed. and Supp. V), permits individuals to commence an action in district court to enforce waste disposal regulations promulgated under the Act. At least 60 days before commencing suit, plaintiffs must notify the alleged violator, the State, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of their intent to sue. 42 U. S. C. § 6972(b)(1).
Petitioners own a commercial dairy farm located next to respondent's sanitary landfill. In April 1981, believing that the landfill operation violated standards established under RCRA, petitioners sent respondent written notice of their intention to file suit. A year later, petitioners commenced this action. On March 1, 1983, respondent moved for summary judgment on the ground that petitioners had failed to notify Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and
The District Court denied respondent's motion. It reasoned that petitioners had cured any defect in notice by formally notifying the state and federal agencies on March 2, 1983. The agencies would then have 60 days to take appropriate steps to cure any violation at respondent's landfill. The court noted that the purpose of the notice requirement was to give administrative agencies an opportunity to enforce environmental regulations. In this case, neither the state nor the federal agency expressed any interest in taking action against respondent. Therefore, the court concluded that dismissing the action at this stage would waste judicial resources. Civ. No. 82-481 (Ore., Apr. 22, 1983).
After the action proceeded to trial, the District Court held that respondent had violated RCRA. The court ordered respondent to remedy the violation but refused to grant petitioners' motion for injunctive relief. Civ. No. 82-481JU (Sept. 30, 1985). In a later order, the District Court denied petitioners' request for attorney's fees. Petitioners appealed both rulings; respondent cross-appealed from the denial of its summary judgment motion.
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that petitioners' failure to comply with the 60-day notice requirement deprived the District Court of subject matter jurisdiction. Relying on the plain language of § 6972(b)(1), the Court of Appeals determined that permitting the plaintiff to proceed without giving notice would constitute " `judicial amendment' " of a clear statutory command. 844 F.2d 598, 600 (1987), quoting Garcia v. Cecos Int'l, Inc., 761 F.2d 76, 78 (CA1 1985) (citation omitted). The Court of Appeals also determined that strict construction of the notice requirement would best further the goal of giving environmental agencies.
As we have repeatedly noted, "the starting point for interpreting a statute is the language of the statute itself." Consumer Product Safety Comm'n v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 108 (1980). Section 6972(a)(1) permits any person to commence a civil action against an alleged violator of regulations established under RCRA "[except] as provided in subsection (b)." Subsection (b)(1) states:
The language of this provision could not be clearer. A citizen may not commence an action under RCRA until 60 days after the citizen has notified the EPA, the State in which the alleged violation occurred, and the alleged violator. Actions commenced prior to 60 days after notice are "prohibited." Because this language is expressly incorporated by reference into § 6972(a), it acts as a specific limitation on a citizen's right to bring suit. Under a literal reading of the statute, compliance with the 60-day notice provision is a mandatory, not optional, condition precedent for suit.
Petitioners do not contend that the language of this provision is ambiguous; rather, they assert that it should be given a flexible or pragmatic construction. Thus, petitioners argue that if a suit commenced without proper notice is stayed until 60 days after notice had been given, the District Court should deem the notice requirement to be satisfied. See Pymatuning Water Shed Citizens for Hygienic Environment v. Eaton, 644 F.2d 995, 996-997 (CA3 1981). According to petitioners, a 60-day stay would serve the same function as delaying commencement of the suit: it would give the Government an opportunity to take action against the alleged violator and it would give the violator the opportunity to bring itself into compliance.
Whether or not a stay is in fact the functional equivalent of a precommencement delay, such an interpretation of § 6972(b) flatly contradicts the language of the statute. Under Rule 3 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "[a] civil action is commenced by filing a complaint with the court." Reading § 6972(b)(1) in light of this Rule, a plaintiff may not file suit before fulfilling the 60-day notice requirement. Staying judicial action once the suit has been filed does not honor this prohibition. Congress could have excepted parties from complying with the notice or delay requirement; indeed, it carved out such an exception in its 1984 amendments to
Petitioners further argue that under our decision in Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 393 (1982), RCRA's 60-day notice provision should be subject to equitable modification and cure. In Zipes, we held that the timely filing of a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as required under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 78 Stat. 253, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(e) (1982 ed.) ("[a] charge under this section shall be filed within one hundred and eighty days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred . . ."), was not a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit but was subject to waiver, estoppel, and equitable tolling. 455 U. S., at 393. This decision does not help petitioners. First, as we noted in Zipes, both the language and legislative history of § 2000e-5(e) indicate that the filing period operated as a statute of limitations. 455 U. S., at 393-394. The running of such statutes is traditionally subject to equitable tolling. See, e. g., Honda v. Clark, 386 U.S. 484, 501 (1967) (holding that where consistent with the overall congressional purpose, a "traditional equitable tolling principle" should be applied to a statutory limitations period). Unlike a statute of limitations, RCRA's 60-day notice provision is not triggered by the violation giving rise to the action. Rather, petitioners have full control over the timing of their suit: they need only give notice to the appropriate parties and refrain from commencing their action for at least 60 days. The equities do not weigh in favor of modifying statutory requirements when the procedural default is caused by petitioners' "failure to take the minimal steps necessary" to preserve their claims.
Nor can we excuse petitioners' failure on the ground that "a technical reading [of § 6972] would be `particularly inappropriate in a statutory scheme in which laymen, unassisted by trained lawyers, initiate the process.' " Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., supra, at 397, quoting Love v. Pullman Co., 404 U.S. 522, 527 (1972). While the initial charge in a Title VII proceeding is normally filed by an aggrieved individual, see § 2000e-5(b), citizen suits under RCRA are like any other lawsuit, generally filed by trained lawyers who are presumed to be aware of statutory requirements. (Indeed, counsel for petitioners in this case admitted at oral argument that he knew of the notice provisions but inadvertently neglected to notify the state and federal agencies. Tr. of Oral Arg. 3-4.) Under these circumstances, it is not unfair to require strict compliance with statutory conditions precedent to suit.
Petitioners next contend that a literal interpretation of the notice provision would defeat Congress' intent in enacting RCRA; to support this argument, they cite passages from the legislative history of the first citizen suit statute, § 304 of the Clean Air Amendments of 1970, indicating that citizen suits should be encouraged. See S. Rep. No. 91-1196, pp. 36-37 (1970), 1 Senate Committee on Public Works, 93d Cong., 2d Sess., A Legislative History of the Clean Air Amendments of 1970, pp. 436-437 (Comm. Print 1974). This reliance on legislative history is misplaced. We have held that "[a]bsent a clearly expressed legislative intention to the contrary," the words of the statute are conclusive. Consumer Product Safety Comm'n v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U. S., at 108. Nothing in the legislative history of the citizen suit provision militates against honoring the plain language of the notice requirement. Nor is this one of the "`rare cases [in which] the literal application of a statute will produce a result demonstrably at odds with the intentions of
Petitioners next assert that giving effect to the literal meaning of the notice provisions would compel "absurd or futile results." United States v. American Trucking Assns., Inc., 310 U.S. 534, 543 (1940). In essence, petitioners make two arguments. First, petitioners, with amici,
Second, petitioners argue that a strict construction of the notice provision would cause procedural anomalies. For example, petitioners contend that if a citizen notified Government agencies of a violation, and the agencies explicitly declined to act, it would be pointless to require the citizen to wait 60 days to commence suit. While such a result may be frustrating to the plaintiff, it is not irrational: as the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit noted, "[p]ermitting immediate suit ignores the possibility that a violator or agency may
In sum, we conclude that none of petitioners' arguments requires us to disregard the plain language of § 6972(b). "[I]n the long run, experience teaches that strict adherence to the procedural requirements specified by the legislature is the best guarantee of evenhanded administration of the law." Mohasco Corp. v. Silver, 447 U.S. 807, 826 (1980). Therefore, we hold that the notice and 60-day delay requirements are mandatory conditions precedent to commencing suit under the RCRA citizen suit provision; a district court may not disregard these requirements at its discretion. The parties have framed the question presented in this case as whether the notice provision is jurisdictional or procedural. In light of our literal interpretation of the statutory requirement, we need not determine whether § 6972(b) is jurisdictional in the strict sense of the term. See Fair Assessment in Real Estate Assn., Inc. v. McNary, 454 U.S. 100, 137 (1981) (BRENNAN, J., concurring in judgment) ("In 1937 the requirement of exhaustion of state administrative remedies was certainly a mandatory precondition to suit, and in that sense a `jurisdictional prerequisite' ").
As a general rule, if an action is barred by the terms of a statute, it must be dismissed. Thus in Baldwin County Welcome Center v. Brown, 466 U.S. 147 (1984), we approved the District Court's determination that a claimant who failed to file a complaint within the 90-day statutory time period mandated by Title VII, 42 U. S. C. § 2000e-5(f)(1) (1982 ed.), had forfeited her right to pursue her claim. Accordingly, we rejected the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit's conclusion that under the " `generous' " interpretation required by the remedial nature of Title VII, claimant's filing of a right-to-sue letter had tolled the 90-day period. 466 U. S., at 149. But cf. Oscar Mayer & Co. v. Evans, 441 U.S. 750, 764-765, and n. 13 (1979) (where requiring dismissal and refiling "would serve no purpose other than the creation of an additional
Petitioners urge us not to require dismissal of this action after years of litigation and a determination on the merits. They contend that such a dismissal would unnecessarily waste judicial resources. We are sympathetic to this argument. The complex environmental and legal issues involved in this litigation have consumed the time and energy of a District Court and the parties for nearly four years. Nevertheless, the factors which have led us to apply decisions nonretroactively are not present in this case. See Chevron Oil Co. v. Huson, 404 U.S. 97, 106-107 (1971). Our decision here does not establish a new rule of law; nor does it overrule clear past precedent on which litigants may have relied. Moreover, the statute itself put petitioners on notice of the requirements for bringing suit. Retroactive operation of our decision will further the congressional purpose of giving agencies and alleged violators a 60-day nonadversarial period to achieve compliance with RCRA regulations. Nor will the dismissal of this action have the inequitable result of depriving petitioners of their "right to a day in court." Id., at 108. Petitioners remain free to give notice and file their suit in compliance with the statute to enforce pertinent environmental standards.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE MARSHALL, with whom JUSTICE BRENNAN joins, dissenting.
Purporting to rely on "the plain language" of 42 U. S. C. § 6972(b) (1982 ed.), ante, at 31, the Court holds that a plaintiff's failure to comply with the 60-day prior notice provision of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, 42 U. S. C. § 6901 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. V), is necessarily fatal to his case. Yet even under the Court's preferred "literal reading" of the statute, ante, at 26, the sanction for a violation of the notice provision is anything but clear. Because requiring district courts to dismiss every action filed in violation of § 6972(b) ill serves both judicial economy and Congress' purposes in adopting RCRA, I dissent.
The relevant portion of the notice provision reads: "No action may be commenced under paragraph (a)(1) of this section — (1) prior to sixty days after the plaintiff has given notice of the violation (A) to the Administrator [of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)]; (B) to the State in which the alleged violation occurs; and (C) to any alleged violator. . . ." § 6972(b). There can be no doubt that the statute requires notice before a plaintiff can file a complaint. Nor is it open to debate that petitioners failed to notify the State and the EPA of the alleged violation 60 days before they filed a complaint in the District Court and thereby "commenced this action," ante, at 23, within the meaning of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 3. The Court states these inescapable facts and, without any further analysis, concludes
That a plaintiff's failure to comply with statutory conditions precedent before bringing suit does not necessarily mandate dismissal of her action is apparent from our decision in Oscar Mayer & Co. v. Evans, 441 U.S. 750 (1979). In Oscar Mayer, we were asked to interpret § 14(b) of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 81 Stat. 607, as set forth in 29 U. S. C. § 633(b) (1982 ed.), which provides in part that "no suit may be brought under section 626 of this title before the expiration of sixty days after proceedings have been commenced under the State law." Because we found that "[t]he section is intended to give state agencies a limited opportunity to resolve problems of employment discrimination and thereby to make unnecessary, resort to federal relief by victims of the discrimination," 441 U. S., at 755, we held the 60-day notice requirement to be a "mandatory, not optional," precondition to suit. Id., at 758. Compare ante, at 26 (holding that RCRA's 60-day notice provision "is a mandatory, not optional, condition precedent for suit").
To be sure, part of our reason for finding that a stay regime was preferable to dismissal and refiling was that laypersons filed many of the suits at issue, a circumstance that is arguably not present in RCRA cases. See ante, at 28 (suggesting, without evidence, that citizen suits under RCRA tend to be filed by represented parties). The point for present purposes, however, is simply that violation of a mandatory precondition to suit does not necessarily require dismissal of the suit. Where, as here, the statute specifies no sanction, factors extrinsic to statutory language enter into the decision as to what sanction is appropriate. See also United States v. Robinson, 361 U.S. 220, 223-224 (1960) (in determining whether court is deprived of jurisdiction over appeal when notice of appeal is not timely filed and when rule specifically provides that a court may not enlarge the period for filing notice of appeal, the court should make "a detailed examination of the language, judicial interpretations, and history of [the relevant rules]").
Furthermore, one of Congress' purposes in enacting the citizen suit provision, of which the notice requirement is a part, was to encourage citizen suits. See, e. g., S. Rep. No. 91-1196, pp. 36-37 (1970) (legislative history of identical provision of Clean Air Amendments of 1970, 42 U. S. C. § 7604). Compare ante, at 29. Where Congress intends to facilitate citizen suits, and where the salutary purposes of the notice provision can be equally well served by a stay as by dismissal, a regime that requires the dismissal of a citizen suit that has "consumed the time and energy of a District Court and the parties for nearly four years," ante, at 32, and that has resulted in a judicial determination that respondent has violated RCRA, ante, at 24, is simply inconsistent with the will of Congress.
The Court's reasoning reduces to an unexplained assertion followed by a citation to illusory authority. Because the Court's conclusion is not compelled by the language of the notice provision, and because Congress's twin purposes of fostering private enforcement of RCRA and of conserving judicial resources are better served by a rule permitting the district courts to stay actions such as this for 60 days rather than requiring dismissal, I dissent.