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Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp.

Laches And State Action

The district court first addressed Southwestern's motion to dismiss the lawsuit and arguments concerning procedural matters. Then the court would consider Bean's request for a preliminary injunction. Judge McDonald, writing for the court, ruled against Southwestern's procedural argument. He pointed out that the Solid Waste Disposal Act allowed revoking a permit through rehearings only in regard to the issues "pertaining to public health, air or water pollution, land use, or violation of this Act or of any other applicable laws or regulations controlling the disposal of solid waste." Bean and the other plaintiffs, instead, sought revocation for none of these reasons, but for an alleged violation of federal law.

Southwestern's request for dismissal of the case was based on the equitable doctrine of laches.Three separate criteria must be established before applying laches. In the Bean case, Southwestern must show that a delay occurred in Bean asserting a right or a claim, that no valid reason for Bean's delay existed, and that Bean displayed unreasonable bias against Southwestern. McDonald determined that, based on the evidence, laches was not relevant in the case. Although the site was near completion, and a well attended public hearing had been held on the permit application, McDonald concluded Bean did not know of the site placement until late in the process. Because Bean and the other plaintiffs were not able to exercise their rights, the request for delay was justified.

Southwestern also argued that the lack of state involvement meant the case was not valid and should be dismissed. McDonald found that state action did exist. The permit granted by the TDH was the state action. Therefore, the key question was whether the TDH itself discriminated or supported discrimination in any way. If so, then Bean would be entitled to an injunction to stop operation of the facility.

Next, turning to Bean's request for an injunction, McDonald considered four factors. Bean must demonstrate that: (1) the case had a substantial likelihood of success on the merits; (2) a substantial threat of irreversible injury existed; (3) the threat of injury to Bean was greater than the potential harm of an injunction against Southwestern; and, (4) a preliminary injunction would not harm the public interest.

McDonald found that Bean demonstrated a substantial threat of irreparable injury by arguing they were denied their constitutional rights. McDonald wrote that opening the facility could affect the entire community including "its land values, its tax base, its aesthetics, the health and safety of its inhabitants, and the operation of Smiley High School, located" nearby. McDonald found that "public interest would not be disserved by granting the plaintiffs an injunction."

McDonald noted that a key issue was that Bean had not established a substantial likelihood of a successful lawsuit based on the facts of the case. Bean would have to prove that decision to issue the permit was based on an intent to discriminate on the basis of race. Statistical evidence was used to establish discriminatory intent in some earlier cases. McDonald also applied the other standards of proof established in Arlington Heights.

One avenue for demonstrating racial discrimination was to show how the permit approval by the TDH was part of a geographic pattern of discriminating in the solid waste site placement. However, the available statistical data, both city-wide and in the immediate area, failed to establish such a pattern. For example, city data for 17 sites operating with permits since July of 1978 showed over half of the sites granted permits were actually located in areas with 25 percent or less minority population at the time of their opening. Eighty-two percent of the sites were located in areas with 50 percent or less minority population at the time of their opening. McDonald found that no pattern of discrimination was clearly evident. In addition, no evidence existed as outlined in the Arlington Heights case to establish a pattern of discrimination by the TDH.

Next, Bean attempted to prove that the TDH's approval of the permit, in a historical context, constituted discrimination. Three data sets were used to support this argument. However, each set failed to approach standards established in Yick Wo and Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960). One set of data focused on two solid waste sites used by the City of Houston. McDonald responded that just two sites were not considered a statistically significant number. However, for those two sites census information revealed that though the proposed site was within an area of 58 percent minority population, the other site was in an area of only 18 percent minority. McDonald concluded that, obviously, no inference of discrimination could be made from this data.

Bean also argued that East Houston contained 15 percent of Houston's solid waste sites, but only seven percent of its population. In addition, only 32 percent of the sites were located in the western half of the city where 73 percent of the white population lived. Since the proposed site location had a 70 percent minority population, Bean argued the statistical disparity indicated racial discrimination. McDonald wrote, "Even considering the 70 percent minority population of the target area, when one looks at where in the target area these particular sites are located, the inference of racial discrimination dissolves." Actually, city-wide data indicated that half of the solid waste sites in Houston were in areas with over 70 percent white population.

However, McDonald noted that in fact a large number of the sites in East Houston were located around the ship channel which contained Houston's industry and not its population. McDonald noted that Houston's population was 39 percent minority, yet only 42 percent of the solid waste sites in the city of Houston were located in tracts with population greater than 39 percent minority. To McDonald this was not a statistically significant difference.

Lastly, Bean asserted that 1975 census data revealed 11 solid waste sites were located in areas with 100 percent minority population, but none were located in census tracts with 100 percent white population. McDonald discounted the 1975 data as not reliable compared to both 1970 and 1979 census data, with the 1975 data appearing to overcount minority population.

Judge McDonald wrote,

If this Court were TDH, it might very well have denied this permit. It simply does not make sense to put a solid waste site so close to a high school, particularly with no air conditioning . . . It is not my responsibility to decide whether to grant this site a permit. It is my responsibility to decide whether to grant the plaintiffs a preliminary injunction. From the evidence before me, I can say that the plaintiffs have established that the decision to grant a permit was both unfortunate and insensitive. I cannot say that the plaintiffs have established a substantial likelihood of proving that the decision to grant the permit was motivated by purposeful racial discrimination . . .

McDonald ruled that Bean failed to establish a substantial likelihood that the TDH's decision to issue the permit was motivated by purposeful discrimination.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp. - Significance, Waste Management In Houston, Laches And State Action, Impact, Further Readings