A Lesson in Subject Matter Jurisdiction From Judge Greenaway

Adorers of the Blood of Christ v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, 897 F.3d 187 (3d Cir. 2018).  Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line Company, LLC (“Transco”) obtained a certificate of public convenience to build a gas pipeline from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) after a hearing before that agency.  A certificate of public convenience is essentially an approval to construct that the Natural Gas Act, 15 U.S.C. §717 et seq. (“NGA”), authorizes FERC to issue.  The NGA provides that any person aggrieved by the issuance of the certificate can appeal directly to a Circuit Court of Appeals.  But the NGA also says that the aggrieved party must first seek rehearing before FERC, and do so within thirty days of the issuance of the certificate.  The NGA bars a party who fails to do that from seeking judicial review.

Plaintiff Adorers of the Blood of Christ (“Adorers”) is a vowed religious order of Roman Catholic women that owns land that is affected by the issuance of the certificate to Transco.  They object to the use of their land as part of the pipeline project, “explaining that their deeply-held religious beliefs require that they care for the land in a manner that protects and preserves the Earth as God’s creation,” as Judge Greenaway described it in his opinion for the Third Circuit.  But despite receiving notice of the proposed project as the NGA requires, the Adorers never proceeded before FERC.  Instead, they filed suit in the District Court under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000bb-1 (“RFRA”), more than five months after FERC issued the certificate to Transco.

FERC and Transco moved to dismiss the Adorers’ RFRA complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, in light of the NGA”s specific requirements regarding judicial review.  The District Court granted that motion.  The Adorers appealed, but the Third Circuit affirmed.

Judge Greenaway authored a typically thorough opinion.  But the essence of it is contained in the final paragraph of his introduction to the matter.  “On appeal, the Adorers contend that the District Court erred because their RFRA claim raises a federal question, over which the court had jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1331.  We disagree, and hold that a RFRA cause of action, brought by invoking a court’s general federal question jurisdiction, does not abrogate or provide an exception to a specific and exclusive jurisdictional provision prescribing a particular procedure for judicial review of an agency’s action.”

The Adorers argued that RFRA and the NGA conflicted, and that the NGA had to yield to RFRA.  Judge Greenaway concluded that the two statutes did not conflict.  Instead, “the NGA merely provides for complementary procedural requirements that a claimant must adhere to when exercising their RFRA right” to a judicial proceeding.  The NGA was clear in divesting Circuit Courts of jurisdiction where an appellant did not first, and timely, proceed before FERC.  Judge Greenaway also cited cases from the Sixth and Seventh Circuit that had reached that same conclusion.  The bottom line was that “because [the Adorers] failed to engage with the NGA’s procedural regime, we are without jurisdiction to hear the Adorers’ claims.”