In a victory for Cause of Action Institute’s client Limnia, Inc., the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled today that a district court erred in allowing the Department of Energy (“DOE”) to use a so-called “voluntary” remand to evade judicial review of its denial of Limnia applications for a renewable energy loan and loan guarantee.

The agency attempted to escape review of its actions after Limnia had prevailed on a motion to dismiss its Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) claim that DOE arbitrarily and capriciously rejected its applications because of political favoritism.  DOE sought a “voluntary” remand to send the case back to the agency, but instead of seeking remand to reconsider its initial decision to deny Limnia’s applications, DOE required (and the district court agreed) that Limnia must submit brand new applications and pay significantly higher application fees.  This was the agency’s downfall.

The Court of Appeals made clear that “a voluntary remand request made in response to a party’s APA challenge may be granted only when the agency intends to take further action with respect to the original agency decision on review.  Otherwise, a remand may instead function, as it did in this case, as a dismissal of a party’s claims.”

Because DOE refused to reconsider the original decision, the district court’s decision to “close the judicial action left Limnia stuck between a remand and a hard place: Without any means – judicial or administrative – to obtain review of the Department’s 2009 application decisions . . . .  As a result, the District Court’s voluntary remand order was a ‘remand’ in name only.  Limnia’s position was the same as if its case had been dismissed on the merits.”

The decision also addressed whether the district court’s remand order was a final appealable order.  The Court of Appeals held that it was because it marked the end of the district court’s consideration of the case and because Limnia would be unable to seek review of the denied applications if the remand were permitted.  See pages 9–12.

Limnia also had asked the Court of Appeals to clarify the standard of review for district court grants of contested remand motions.  The parties agreed that the standard should be for an abuse of discretion, but the Court of Appeals had not previously ruled on that question.  In a footnote, the Court said that, “[e]ven assuming that the standard of review is abuse of discretion rather than de novo, a question we need not decide, we agree with Limnia that the District Court’s decision must be reversed.”  Although this does not definitively resolve the question, the Court effective said that even under the more lenient abuse-of-discretion standard, the district court erred.  That is, the question presented was not close enough that the district court would have been affirmed under abuse-of-discretion review but reversed if the Court of Appeals considered the issue de novo.

The case now returns to the district court for further proceedings.

The Court’s decision continues CoA Institute’s string of victories on important administrative law issues in front of the D.C. Circuit.  Other significant wins include:

CoA Institute President and CEO John Vecchione argued the case; on brief with him were Josh Schopf and James Valvo.

James Valvo is Counsel & Senior Policy Advisor at Cause of Action Institute and you can follow him on Twitter @JamesValvo.