Thursday, May 3, 2018
Ninth Circuit Says California Medical Waste Management Act Violates Dormant Commerce Clause (but Officials get Qualified Immunity)
The Ninth Circuit ruled in Daniels Sharpsmart, Inc. v. Smith that California's Medical Waste Management Act likely violates the Dormant Commerce Clause, but that officials who imposed a fine under the Act enjoy qualified immunity against a money-damages suit.
The case arose when Daniels, a sharps-container developer, shipped its medical waste out of California for disposal. Daniels originally shipped to another state and incinerated the waste, but later switched to states that permitted waste disposal using other methods.
This didn't sit well with California regulators, who sought to enforce the state Act's requirements that all medical waste be treated by incineration and that "[m]edical waste transported out of state shall be consigned to a permitted medical waste treatment facility in the receiving state." Regulators told Daniels that his waste had to be incinerated, even if the law of another state permitted an alternative method, and that Daniels would be penalized it if didn't incinerate all of its biohazardous waste that originated in California. Daniels continued to ship waste out of California and dispose of it in other ways, and the California regulators imposed a hefty penalty. Daniels sued.
The Ninth Circuit ruled that the Act likely violated the Dormant Commerce Clause. The court applied the "direct regulation emanation" of the Dormant Commerce Clause, which forbids a state from regulating transactions that take place across state lines or entirely outside of the state's borders. Referencing circuit precedent, the court wrote:
Rather, California has attempted to regulate waste treatment everywhere in the country, just as it tried to regulate art sales and Nevada tried to regulate rules violations procedures everywhere in the country. Of course, that could also have the effect of requiring Daniels to run afoul of other states' regulation of medical waste disposal within their jurisdictions, if California law directed something different from their requirements.
Therefore, Daniels will likely succeed on its claim that the Department officials' application of the [Act] constitutes a "per se violation of the Commerce Clause." Were it otherwise, California could purport to regulate the use or disposal of any item--product or refuse--everywhere in the country if it had its origin in California.
But the court went on to hold that state officials enjoyed qualified immunity against Daniels's suit for monetary damages. That's because "a reasonable official, who is not knowledgeable about the arcane considerations lurking within the dormant Commerce Clause doctrine, could reasonably, if erroneously, believe that the Department could control what was done with California waste in another state."
The court reversed the lower court on this point, noting that the lower court wrongly applied law "at a high level of generality" when it concluded that "[t]he extraterritoriality doctrine has been clearly established for decades."