On February 22, 2012, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) re-issued its decision in Board of Health of Sturbridge v. Board of Health of Southbridge (pdf). 

The appellants had mailed their notice of appeal to the lower court on the last day for appeal, but it arrived and was docketed four days later.  The SJC initially released its decision in January, but withdrew it two days later so the court could take another look at the threshold issue of whether under the Rules of Appellate Procedure the trial court had authority to consider a motion to extend the time for filing an appeal when that motion was filed more than 30 days after the deadline for appealing.  The SJC decided that the trial court did have that authority, as long as the notice of appeal itself was not filed more than 30 days late.

Turning to the substance of the case, the plaintiffs were individuals and members of so-called “10-Citizen” groups that sought to appeal a proposed minor modification to a site assignment for an existing landfill in the Town of Southbridge.  The Southbridge Board of Health appointed a hearing officer to consider the proposed modification, and the hearing officer allowed the plaintiffs to intervene in that proceeding as full parties.  The hearing officer approved the modification, and the 10-Citizen groups and others appealed to Superior Court.  In response to the defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of standing, the Superior Court ruled that the plaintiffs’ role as full parties to the administrative proceeding gave them automatic standing to appeal to court. 

In addressing the standing issue, the SJC recognized that 310 CMR §16.20(9)(a) grants broad rights to 10-Citizen groups to intervene before the hearing officer where damage to the environment “is or might be at issue.”  However, appeals to the Superior Court are governed by M.G.L. c. 30A, §14, which sets a higher standard, restricting judicial review to “any person . . . aggrieved by a final decision of any agency in an adjudicatory proceeding.”

The SJC conceded that “some of our decisions contain language suggesting an agency’s designation of a person as an intervener with the right to participate fully as a party brings with it the right to seek judicial review of the agency decision as an ‘aggrieved person.'”  However, the SJC ruled that 10-Citizen groups such as the plaintiffs must demonstrate their “aggrievement” in the Superior Court:

The grant of full party status to citizen groups under . . . [310 CMR § 16.20(9)] presumably is designed to enable the board to receive relevant information about environmental impacts of proposed [landfill] siting decisions from a broad array of persons.  But the regulation and its purpose do not themselves entitle the plaintiffs to seek judicial review of the board’s final decision as persons “aggrieved.” . . . Rather, it is necessary to determine whether any of the plaintiff citizen groups, or, more particularly, any individual members of the citizen groups, have shown or even alleged prejudice to their own substantial rights . . . Put another way, have any of the citizen group members shown or alleged “substantial injury” to themselves that would result directly from the board’s approval of the proposed site assignment modification?

The SJC further required that individual members of 10-Citizen groups show:

direct or specific impact [from] the proposed modification of the landfill . . . Because neither the registration form nor any other part of the record contains information describing the specific relationship of any plaintiff to the landfill – whether by physical proximity or otherwise – it is impossible to conclude that any of the plaintiffs may claim injury that is special to them and different from a generalized concern of the community.

Though it ultimately rested its decision on standing, and ordered the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ Superior Court appeal, the SJC went on to address the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims.  The court rejected the plaintiffs’ substantive challenges to the minor modification because they could not meet their heavy burden of proving that “the decision is not supported by substantial evidence, based on error of law, arbitrary or capricious, or an abuse of discretion,” as required by M.G.L. c. 30A, § 14(7).