Relying on a 2018 decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, a Pennsylvania district court reaffirmed that Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) claims against a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)-regulated pipeline must be made initially to FERC. Adorers of the Blood of Christ v. Transco. Gas Pipe Line Co.
Interplay between FERC and RFRA
The plaintiff religious organization claimed FERC’s approval of a pipeline through its property violated RFRA, entitling plaintiff to monetary damages. But the plaintiff failed to raise the RFRA claim in the FERC proceedings that authorized the pipeline path (and failed to participate in any way in the FERC proceedings). Thus, the defendant sought to dismiss the case, claiming the district court did not have jurisdiction to hear the matter.
While the lawsuit at issue seemed to duplicate one dismissed several years earlier, the plaintiff religious organization claimed it was different because plaintiff now sought only monetary damages associated with the pipeline crossing their property, not injunctive relief as in the prior case. Yet, that was a distinction without a difference, according to the district court. Relying on the Third Circuit’s prior decision, the district court noted that
“FERC may hear any claim raised before it – even potential violations of federal law.” … There is nothing to prevent FERC from hearing a claim for money damages under the RFRA if said claim was properly raised by an affected party. In fact, FERC has required a pipeline company to pay money damages in the past.
RFRA claim dismissed
The district court also noted that even if the RFRA claim had been made to FERC and the plaintiff prevailed, there was no guarantee the plaintiff would have recovered monetary damages. Instead, the district court found it would have been more likely that FERC would have rerouted the pipeline as a way to accommodate the religious beliefs at issue.
Thus, the district court found the case to be a collateral attack on a FERC order and dismissed it for lack of jurisdiction.