On 5 February 1998, the Maryland Department of the Environment ("the MDE"), Petitioner, filed suit in the Circuit Court for Charles County against George Underwood and Carl Breeden, Respondents, seeking reimbursement for expenditures the MDE incurred in removing scrap tires
On 18 February 2000, Respondents filed an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals. In an unreported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals vacated the judgment of the Circuit Court and remanded the case for further proceedings. According to the Court of Special Appeals, Respondents were entitled to assert equitable defenses at trial and, therefore, the Circuit Court erred in granting summary judgment on liability in favor of Petitioner. We granted Petitioner's petition for writ of certiorari and Respondents' conditional cross-petition, Maryland Dep't of the Env't v. Underwood, et al., 364 Md. 534, 774 A.2d 408 (2001), to consider the following questions:
A. Factual Background
On 24 October 1994, Respondents, George Underwood and Carl Breeden, purchased for $6,000 from Ms. Janet Morgan
Following the purchase, Petitioner sent a letter to Respondents, dated 4 August 1995, informing them that it had "been conducting an ongoing investigation in regards to the storage of scrap tires at the Site," and that, as a "current property owner," Respondents were "responsible for the removal of improperly stored scrap tires at th[e] Site."
On 15 August 1995, representatives of Petitioner met with Respondents to determine if Respondents would grant Petitioner access to the property to remove the scrap tires. At that time, Respondents refused to grant Petitioner access because they wanted "to confer with [their] attorney about it." On 29 September 1995, after receiving no communication from Respondents, Petitioner sent a letter to Respondents informing them that it was filing a complaint "to obtain access to the Site." The letter also provided that the complaint could "be resolved by [Respondents] granting the Department access to conduct the necessary removal or remedial action." Upon receipt of that letter, Respondents, on 2 October 1995, granted Petitioner access to the property "for the purpose of taking any and all actions necessary for the removal of [the] scrap tires that [we]re stored there," but did not "admit liability for the expenses associated with" that removal.
B. Procedural History
On 5 February 1998, Petitioner filed a complaint against Respondents in the Circuit Court for Charles County "seeking recovery of money expended to cleanup and remediate" the scrap tire pile located on Respondents' property. The complaint alleged that "[a]s [Respondents] are the owners of the Site in question, they are liable," under § 9-276, "for all expenditures including legal fees and costs from the State Used Tire Cleanup and Recycling Fund for the storage, removal and restoration or remedial action of the scrap tires from the Site." In their answers to Petitioner's complaint, filed on 1 June 1998 and 23 December 1998, both Respondents denied the claims asserted by Petitioner and demanded a trial by jury. Petitioner, in response to those answers, filed a motion to strike demand for jury trial, maintaining "[t]he relief sought ... is reimbursement, which is equitable in nature and does not give rise to a jury trial." The Circuit Court struck the jury prayer.
In addition, Respondents, on 20 April 1999, filed a motion for summary judgment arguing they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law because they "did not cause the tires to be stored" on the property. Petitioner also filed a motion for partial summary judgment maintaining that Respondents, as "the owners of the site, [we]re liable to [Petitioner] for the costs incurred in the clean up of the scrap tires" under § 9-276. Therefore, Petitioner argued, it should be "awarded Summary Judgment on the issue of liability as a matter of law."
On 15 December 1999, the Circuit Court denied Respondents' motion and granted Petitioner's motion. In its Opinion and Order regarding these rulings, the Circuit Court considered the language and legislative history of § 9-276 and held the statute imposed strict liability on Respondents. In so doing, the Circuit Court rejected Respondents' interpretation of the statute making "responsibility or fault ... an element of the reimbursement requirement." It read the language of § 9-276, which provides that reimbursement be made to the MDE "by the owner or operator of the site or any other person who caused the tires to be stored or disposed of at the site...," as placing liability on an owner or operator regardless of culpability. According to the Circuit Court, "the phrase `any other person who caused the tires to be stored or disposed of at the site' should
Subsequently, a trial on a determination of costs was held. Respondents again argued that their case was one "at law," rather than "at equity," and that they were entitled to a trial by jury. Alternatively, Respondents maintained that, if their case was "at equity," they were entitled to raise equitable defenses.
On appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, Respondents argued the Circuit Court erred in granting partial summary judgment in favor of Petitioner because, by "[u]tilizing the rules of statutory construction to ascertain legislative intent," it is "clear that § 9-276 was not enacted so as to impose strict liability." In an unreported opinion, the Court of Special Appeals explained that the Circuit Court "imposed strict liability without fault, based on its conclusion that the language in § 9-276 is `essentially similar to the federal statutory language of CERCLA.'"
In reviewing a grant of a summary judgment motion, we are "most often concerned with whether a dispute of material fact exists." Lippert v. Jung, 366 Md. 221, 227, 783 A.2d 206, 209 (2001). See also Grimes v. Kennedy Krieger Inst., Inc., 366 Md. 29, 71, 782 A.2d 807, 833 (2001); Pence v. Norwest Bank, Minn., N.A., 363 Md. 267, 278, 768 A.2d 639, 645 (2001); Matthews v. Howell, 359 Md. 152, 161, 753 A.2d 69, 73 (2000); County Comm'rs of Caroline County v. J. Roland Dashiell & Sons, Inc., 358 Md. 83, 92, 747 A.2d 600, 605 (2000); Hartford Ins. Co. v. Manor Inn of Bethesda, Inc., 335 Md. 135, 144, 642 A.2d 219, 224 (1994); Gross v. Sussex, Inc., 332 Md. 247, 255, 630 A.2d 1156, 1160 (1993). Where there is no dispute of material fact, however, this Court has stated that the "`standard of review for a grant of summary judgment is whether the trial court was legally correct.'" Lippert, 366 Md. at 227, 783 A.2d at 209 (quoting Goodwich
Petitioner asserts that § 9-276 imposes strict liability on Respondents, as property owners, for the cleanup costs incurred by the MDE in the removal of the scrap tire site from Respondents' property. Petitioner bases its argument on the plain language of § 9-276, corroborated by the legislative history regarding the statute, and further through a comparison of § 9-276 to CERCLA § 9607. Additionally, Petitioner argues that the Court of Special Appeals "erred when it remanded the case to the circuit court to allow the Property Owners to assert `applicable' equitable defenses" because, according to Petitioner, "there are no such defenses that can be asserted with respect to § 9-276."
Respondents, on the other hand, maintain the Court of Special Appeals "correctly determined that [they] were entitled to raise equitable defenses as to the claim brought under § 9-276." Respondents argue that "[a]s used in § 9-276, the word `reimbursed' is analogous to restitution" and that such an action "seeking a return to the status quo ... constitutes an equitable remedy." Respondents also maintain that the Legislature did not intend § 9-276(a) to "be a strict liability statute" because "innocent owners were not intended to be responsible persons." Therefore, according to Respondents, they were entitled to assert equitable defenses at trial.
We agree with Petitioner that the Circuit Court was legally correct in finding that § 9-276 imposed strict liability on Respondents for the reimbursement of costs for the removal of the scrap tire pile from Respondents' property. We reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals, and hold further that Respondents were not entitled to assert equitable defenses.
In 1989, the Maryland State Used Tire Cleanup and Recycling Fund, Md.Code
Section 9-276, at issue in this case, was included in the original enactment of the State Used Tire Cleanup and Recycling Fund to provide for the "[r]eimbursement of costs." Chapter 667, § 1 of the Acts of 1989. As codified today, it reads:
In the present case, our focus is on the scope of liability imposed by § 9-276(a), which mandates that the "owner or operator of the site or any other person who caused the tires to be stored or disposed of at the site in violation of this subtitle" is responsible to the MDE for reimbursement of cleanup costs.
In their arguments to this Court and in the courts below, Petitioner and Respondents focus on the similarities and differences between § 9-276 and CERCLA § 9607 in an attempt to glean the intended scope of liability under § 9-276(a). See supra note 10 (discussing the reliance of Petitioner and Respondents on CERCLA in interpreting § 9-276). As we
Section 9-276(a) imposes liability for reimbursement on the "owner or operator of the site or any other person who caused the tires to be stored or disposed of at the site in violation of this subtitle." Respondents' interpretation of this section would have the clause "who caused the tires to be stored or disposed of at the site in violation of this subtitle" modify all three categories of potential responsible parties described in the statute, i.e. the "owner," the "operator," and "any other person." That interpretation, however, ignores the clear meaning of the structure and relationship of the words as they appear in the statute and does not acknowledge the "generally recognized rule of statutory construction that a qualifying clause ordinarily is confined to the immediately preceding words or phrase—particularly in the absence of a comma before the qualifying phrase...." Sullivan v. Dixon, 280 Md. 444, 451, 373 A.2d 1245, 1249 (1977) (citing Webb v. City of Baltimore, 179 Md. 407, 409-10, 19 A.2d 704, 705 (1941)). In consideration of that principle, we are unable to adopt Respondents' interpretation.
The language of § 9-276 does not contain commas setting apart the three categories of potential responsible parties and the modifying clause (e.g. "the owner or operator of the site, or any other person, who caused the tires to be stored..."), nor does it explicitly apply the modifying clause to all three parties. In the absence of such context, it is clear that the modifying clause "who caused the tires to be stored ..." was intended to apply only to "any other person." Consequently, the language of § 9-276(a) mandates that liability for reimbursement to the MDE may be placed on any of 3 categories of persons who violate the subtitle: (1) an owner of a site containing used tires; (2) an operator of a site containing used tires; or (3) any other person who caused the used tires to be stored or disposed of at the site.
We now must determine whether Respondents were entitled to assert equitable defenses on their own behalf at trial. Petitioner urges us to rely on the body of federal case law interpreting CERCLA § 9607, notwithstanding certain differences between § 9-276 and the federal statute
As noted earlier, CERCLA "gives the federal government broad power to combat contamination of the environment." Bausch & Lomb, Inc. v. Utica Mut. Ins. Co., 330 Md. 758, 766 n. 2, 625 A.2d 1021, 1025 n. 2 (1993), petition granted by 346 Md. 28, 694 A.2d 951 (1997), remanded by 355 Md. 566, 735 A.2d 1081 (1999) (citation omitted). To effectuate that end, CERCLA § 9607 imposes strict liability on owners and operators of facilities for the reimbursement of all cleanup costs incurred in responding to hazardous substances on their property. See § 9607(a).
Pertinent to the present case, the mass of federal case law surrounding CERCLA § 9607 and the language of the statute itself elucidate the notion that strictly liable parties generally are not entitled to raise any defenses on their behalf, unless such defenses are recognized within the statute itself. Specifically, by expressly enumerating the available defenses in CERCLA § 9607, the drafters of that statute confirmed that all other defenses were not available normally to strictly liable persons. If they were otherwise available, such an enumeration by the legislature would be both unnecessary and superfluous. By logical extension, therefore, it has been demonstrated that in order to raise equitable defenses to rebut statutorily imposed strict liability, such defenses must be explicitly provided for in the statute itself. See, e.g., U.S. v. DWC Trust Holding Co., No. HAR 93-2859, 1994 WL 395730, at *2, 1994 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10545, at *6 (D.Md. July 22, 1994) (holding that the "absence of any reference to equitable defenses to liability in the statute therefore precludes them"). If they are not provided for in the statute imposing strict liability, then, due to the absolute liability imposed by the statute, they are not available as a defense to liability or damages at trial. Id. In our opinion, that rationale is equally applicable to the statute at hand in the present case.
Although § 9-276, at the times relevant to the present case, did not enumerate defenses available to strictly liable parties under the statute, their absence does not signify that defenses, specifically equitable defenses, are thus available to otherwise liable parties. Rather, as demonstrated by CERCLA § 9607, unless the use of equitable defenses is specifically provided for in a strict liability statute, a liable party under that statute is not entitled to assert them at trial. In this case, the legislature did not enumerate any defenses to strict liability under § 9-276. Therefore, due to the strict liability imposed on Respondents by § 9-276, they were not entitled to raise any defenses, including those recognized as equitable in nature, on their behalf at trial.
In the courts below, Respondents maintained, as an alternative argument, that they were entitled to a trial by jury in this matter. Essentially, Respondents did not care whether they prevailed on their equitable defenses theory or their jury trial argument. To decide the former in their favor, however, necessarily avoided or decided the latter against them, and vice versa. The two arguments were mutually exclusive and, thus, truly asserted in the alternative. Accordingly, because we hold that the Court of Special Appeals erred in ruling in Respondents' favor as to the availability of equitable defenses to the statutory strict liability present in this case, we must extend our analysis to consider the other side of the coin, whether Respondents' views as to a right to a jury trial are in any way correct.
Petitioner maintained below that "reimbursement," as provided in § 9-276, was "equitable" relief and therefore, "d[id] not give rise to a jury trial." In so doing, Petitioner urged the courts to "turn[ ] to federal case law [regarding CERCLA] to determine the scope of Maryland's jury trial right," and noted that "federal courts have held uniformly that there is no right to a jury trial in an environmental cost recovery action." On the other hand, Respondents argued that the State "can't have it both ways." According to Respondents, the case was "either a law case," hence providing a right to a jury trial, or they "[we]re entitled to raise equit[able] defenses." Although we do not adopt totally Respondents' arguments on this point, for the following reasons we agree that Respondents were entitled to a jury trial on the issue of the appropriate amount of the reimbursement in this case.
In a proceeding initiated by the State to obtain reimbursement for cleanup costs under § 9-276, two determinations must be made, specifically, whether the persons sued come within the classes of persons made liable by the statute and the amount of reimbursement due. On the issue of liability, it is clear that Respondents are not entitled to a jury trial because no disputes of material fact exist on this record. The question remains, however, whether such liable parties are entitled to a jury trial on the issue of the amount of the reimbursement, particularly whether the expenditures for which reimbursement is sought by the State are fair and reasonable in light of the purposes of the statute and the particular facts of the case.
Article 23 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights provides, "the right of trial by jury of all issues of fact in civil proceedings in the several Courts of Law in this State, where the amount in controversy exceeds the sum of $10,000 shall be inviolably preserved." It is well-established, however, that,
Impala Platinum Ltd. v. Impala Sales (U.S.A.), Inc., 283 Md. 296, 320, 389 A.2d 887, 901 (1978) (citations omitted). See also Calabi v. Gov't. Em'ees. Ins. Co., 353 Md. 649, 657, 728 A.2d 206 (1999) (quoting Impala Platinum Ltd.). Therefore, our determination here depends on whether an action for reimbursement under § 9-276 is deemed an action at law for money damages or is equitable in nature.
Section 9-276(a) requires that "[a]ll expenditures from the State Used Tire Cleanup and Recycling Fund" made "in response to the storage or disposal of used tires at a particular site" be reimbursed "by the owner or operator of the site or any other person who caused the tires to be stored at the site...." Following that subsection, § 9-276(b) provides,
As we stated in our earlier consideration of § 9-276(a), the "cardinal rule of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature," Oaks, 339 Md. at 35, 660 A.2d at 429 (citation omitted), and the "`primary source of legislative intent is, of course, the language of the statute itself.'" Pagano, 341 Md. at 133, 669 A.2d at 1340-41 (citation omitted). Where the language of a statute is "clear and unambiguous," we give effect "to the statute as written," Oaks, 339 Md. at 35, 660 A.2d at 429, and construe it "`without forced or subtle interpretations designed to extend or limit the scope of its operation.'" Giant Food, Inc., 356 Md. at 189, 738 A.2d at 861 (citation omitted). In this case, based on the established rules of statutory interpretation, it is apparent the Legislature intended § 9-276 afford the State an action at law for money.
Section 9-276(b) provides that, "[i]n addition to any other legal action authorized... [,] the Attorney General may bring an action to recover costs and interest from any person who fails to make reimbursement" under subsection (a). (Emphasis added). Based on the plain meaning of these words, this subsection clearly and unambiguously establishes that the State's action to recover costs and interest is a "legal action." By including the word "other" in § 9-276(b), the Legislature established that an action to seek reimbursement under § 9-276 is also a "legal action." If it had not so intended, the Legislature would have omitted the word "other" from the phrase "any other legal action," which might have made construction of § 9-276(b) ambiguous.
Because we are bound to give effect to the "`entire [statute], neither adding, nor deleting, words,'" Blundon v. Taylor, 364 Md. 1, 8, 770 A.2d 658, 662 (2001) (quoting New Jersey v. Strazzella, 331 Md. 270, 274-74, 627 A.2d 1055, 1057 (1993)), we must interpret the statute as written. Therefore, upon holding that an action under § 9-276 is a "legal action," we find Respondents necessarily were entitled to a jury trial in the Circuit Court on the issue of the amount of reimbursement.
Accordingly, we conclude that the Circuit Court was legally correct in granting
JUDGMENT OF THE COURT OF SPECIAL APPEALS REVERSED; CASE REMANDED TO THAT COURT WITH DIRECTIONS TO AFFIRM IN PART AND REVERSE IN PART THE JUDGMENT OF THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR CHARLES COUNTY, AND TO REMAND THE CASE TO THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS CONSISTENT WITH THIS OPINION; PETITIONER AND RESPONDENT TO DIVIDE EVENLY THE COSTS IN THIS COURT AND THE COURT OF SPECIAL APPEALS.
Any confusion surrounding this question appears fostered by Petitioner's and Respondents' differing interpretations of the Court of Special Appeals's holding regarding § 9-276. Respondents, in their brief to this Court, argue that the Court of Special Appeals "incorrectly determined that [§ 9-276] was an enactment of strict liability as to ... [p]roperty [o]wners who placed no tires on the subject property," but correctly determined that Respondents were entitled to raise equitable defenses at trial. Petitioner, to the contrary, maintains the Court of Special Appeals "rejected the [C]ircuit [C]ourt's conclusion that the Property Owners were strictly liable for the ... cleanup costs," and hence erred in allowing Respondents to assert equitable defenses. As discussed in infra note 11, we have interpreted the decision of the Court of Special Appeals as holding Respondents were entitled to assert equitable defenses because § 9-276 does not impose strict liability on property owners for cleanup costs. Based on that interpretation, Respondents' argument misstates the holding of the Court of Special Appeals regarding strict liability. Notwithstanding that confusion, we will answer both Petitioner's and Respondents' penultimate question—whether § 9-276 imposes strict liability on property owners for reimbursement of cleanup costs.
(a) In general.—Unless the Secretary determines that a removal and remedial action will be done properly and in a timely manner by the owner or operator of a site where used tires are stored or disposed of, if used tires are stored or disposed of at a site in a manner that may present a threat to the public health or environment, the Secretary may:
(a) In general.—Except as provided in subsection (d) of this section, all expenditures from the State Used Tire Cleanup and Recycling Fund made by the Department under § 9-275(a)(1) of this subtitle in response to the storage or disposal of used tires at a particular site shall be reimbursed to the Department for the State Used Tire Cleanup and Recycling Fund by the owner or operator of the site or any other person who caused the tires to be stored or disposed of at the site in violation of this subtitle.
Bausch & Lomb, Inc. v. Utica Mut. Ins. Co., 330 Md. 758, 766 n. 2, 625 A.2d 1021, 1025 n. 2 (1993), petition granted by 346 Md. 28, 694 A.2d 951 (1997), remanded by 355 Md. 566, 735 A.2d 1081 (1999) (citations omitted).
The comparison of § 9-276 to CERCLA § 9607 (the liability for costs provision of the act) was relied upon by both parties in this case. Petitioner has compared § 9-276 to CERCLA § 9607 to aid in interpreting § 9-276 because "both the tire statute and CERCLA are remedial in nature and the language regarding an owner's liability is similar." Respondents have attempted to refute Petitioner's comparison, arguing that CERCLA "is not determinative of the instant case," but, in the alternative, have endeavored to interpret CERCLA § 9607 in their favor, for instance, by suggesting that "equitable concepts do play a part [in defense against] the strict liability of CERCLA."
It should be noted, however, that the Circuit Court's decision regarding the motions for summary judgment was based on the language and legislative history of § 9-276, not on a comparison of § 9-276 to CERCLA. The portion of the Circuit Court opinion quoted by the Court of Special Appeals, specifically that § 9-276 is "`essentially similar to the federal statutory language of CERCLA,'" was contained in a summary of Petitioner's arguments within the Circuit Court opinion. It was not relied upon or adopted by the Circuit Court in its analysis. The Circuit Court, however, did compare § 9-276 to CERCLA in its order assessing damages. Even that comparison was not utilized for purposes of determining whether § 9-276 imposed strict liability. Rather, it was employed to determine whether reimbursement of "costs," under § 9-276, includes both direct and indirect costs.
Additionally, a recent amendment to § 9-276 exempts property owners from responsibility for reimbursement of "expenditures of $10,000 or less related to removal, restoration, or remedial action in response to" scrap tires on their land if those owners "acquired the property containing the scrap tires prior to January 1, 2000 by inheritance or bequest... [,] and ... [t]he tires were stored or disposed of at the site prior to January 1, 2000." See Chapter 235, § 2 of the Acts of 2000, codified at Md.Code (1996 Repl.Vol., 2001 Supp.), Environment Article, § 9-276(d). This amendment provides further indication that the Legislature did not intend previously to exclude all innocent property owners from liability under § 9-276. If the Legislature had so intended, it would have been unnecessary and redundant in 2000 to amend § 9-276 to provide for the limited exception now contained in the statute.
As noted at supra page 13, § 9-276 was designed to provide the MDE "with the statutory authority to regulate" the "potential catastrophic environmental risk" posed by the "stockpiling of used tires." Bill Analysis, House Bill 491, Reports of the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, at 1 (1989). It was intended to "encourage individuals to recycle used tires and [to] rehabilitate" current scrap tire sites, id., and it provided for the reimbursement of cleanup costs from "certain persons." Chapter 667, Acts of 1989. In like manner, CERCLA "gives the federal government broad power to combat contamination of the environment," Bausch & Lomb, Inc. v. Utica Mut. Ins. Co., 330 Md. 758, 766 n. 2, 625 A.2d 1021, 1025 n. 2 (1993), petition granted by 346 Md. 28, 694 A.2d 951 (1997), remanded by 355 Md. 566, 735 A.2d 1081 (1999) (citation omitted), and was designed to
Chem. Waste Mgmt., Inc. v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 669 F.Supp. 1285, 1290 n. 6 (E.D.Pa.1987). Similar to the language of § 9-276, CERCLA § 9607 also imposes liability for "all costs of removal or remedial action" on, among others, "the owner and operator of a ... facility." § 9607(a).
In contrast to each other, however, CERCLA § 9607 is part of an extensive federal environmental act applying to "hazardous substances," whereas § 9-276 is an element of a more narrowly focused state environmental fund applying only to "used tires." CERCLA § 9607(b) also enumerates defenses available to an otherwise liable party, specifically if "the release or threat of release of a hazardous substance and the damages resulting therefrom were caused solely by—(1) an act of God; (2) an act of War; (3) an act or omission of a third party ...; or (4) any combination of the foregoing paragraphs," whereas § 9-276 does not. In fact, § 9-276 provides no defenses or exemptions, beyond the limited category of exempted property owners in § 9-276(d), see supra note 14, for responsible parties under the statutory scheme.
Martin, 349 Md. at 489, 709 A.2d at 136. This rationale is equally applicable to the case at hand. Had Petitioner requested an injunction to compel Respondents to clean up their property, the action would have been equitable and Respondents would not be entitled to a jury trial. Because, however, Petitioner sought money damages as reimbursement for the State performing the cleanup (as the statute permitted), the action is a legal one and Respondents retain their right to a trial by jury as to the amount of the reimbursement.