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Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society

United States Supreme Court
421 U.S. 240 (1975)


In 1969, Alyeska Pipeline Service Company (Alyeska) (defendant) applied for a 54-foot right of way and a number of special land-use permits for the construction of a pipeline to transport oil from the North Slope of Alaska to markets in the rest of the United States. In 1970, the Wilderness Society; Environmental Defense Fund, Inc.; and Friends of the Earth (plaintiffs) sued the U.S. secretary of the interior (secretary) (defendant) for an injunction to bar the secretary from granting the right of way and permits in violation of the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 (MLA), 30 U.S.C. § 180, and without compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), 42 U.S.C. § 4321. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted the preliminary injunction. The State of Alaska (defendant) and Alyeska intervened. After public comment and briefing on the MLA and NEPA issues, the district court dissolved the preliminary injunction, denied a permanent injunction, and dismissed the complaint. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed solely on MLA grounds. Congress then amended the MLA to allow the granting of Alyeska’s applications, impose more stringent safety and liability standards, require Alyeska to pay fair market value for the right of way, and require Alyeska to bear the costs of applying for the permits and monitoring the right of way. This amendment ended the litigation on the merits, but there remained the question of attorneys’ fees. No statute required attorneys’ fees, and the American Rule generally barred awards of attorneys’ fees to the prevailing party in the absence of a statute. The court of appeals held that this suit fell within an exception to the American Rule because the suit was for the common benefit, and ruled that Alyeska should pay for one-half of the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees. Alyeska appealed.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (White, J.)

Dissent (Marshall, J.)

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