AHRI defeats the City of Albequerque, Complicating Matters for Local Governments

AHRI vs. City of Albuquerque, a case that I first posted on in 2008, finally reached its conclusion last week.  In line with the preliminary injunction she ordered on October 3, 2008, Judge Martha Vazquez of the District of New Mexico decided that Albuquerque's energy code was preempted by Federal law mandating the energy efficiency of HVAC equipment. 

Appliance Magazine reported:

In the latest opinion, Judge Vazquez confirmed her Sept. 10, 2010, rulings:
(1) The prescriptive energy efficiency standards in the 2007 Albuquerque code that are more stringent than federal minimum efficiency standards are preempted and cannot be saved from federal preemption by the availability of alternative code compliance paths.
(2) A particular performance-based code compliance option is preempted because it is based on a standard reference design that uses efficiency levels that exceed federal efficiency standards. Responding to a summary judgment motion filed by the city that essentially asked Judge Vazquez to reconsider her earlier rulings, she declined to do so and denied the city’s motion.

A similar suit was filed by the Building Industry Association in 2010 to enjoin (or, in regular english, stop) the Washington State Energy Code from taking effect. 

The foundation of both AHRI and BIA is in essence one of preemption--that the federal government has enacted laws that prevent lesser governmental authorities from passing laws on the same subject, here the Federal regulations governing the efficiency of HVAC equipment preempted state and local energy efficiency laws.

Interestingly, in the Washington case, the court found that the Washington State energy code was not preempted.   This creates a split between the District of New Mexico and the Western District of Washington.  In my next post, I will give more detail on the difference between the two cases.  It will make it more difficult for local governments to know the extent to which they can regulate HVAC energy efficiency, which may make local governments shy away from doing so.

Judge Dismisses Gifford Claims Against USGBC, But Energy Efficiency of LEED Buildings Unresolved

Yesterday, Judge Sands dismissed Henry Gifford's suit against the USGBC.  A copy of the Order is available here.  In a major win for the USGBC, Judge Sands dismissed Gifford, et al's Federal claims with prejudice, which means they cannot be brought again, Because the Federal claims were dismissed, the Judge also dismissed Gifford, et al's state claims for lack of jurisdiction. 

Particularly gratifying for me is that Judge Sands dismissed the case for exactly the reason I anticipated in my prior posts on the case that the plaintiff in this case lacked standing to bring the case.  The posts are available here and here.

In summary:

To the best of my research, Mr. Gifford is not a LEED AP, and indeed, from his website and publications, he has outspokenly denounced the USGBC and LEED.  Mr. Gifford does not appear to own any property certified LEED.  In short--the USGBC's actions have not harmed him or his career, if anything, has been enhanced by the USGBC's position.

Similarly Judge Sands held:

With the exception of Gifford,  each Plaintiff designs and consults on specific elements of individual buildings, including heating and cooling systems, moisture and mold remediation, and architectural design. Plaintiffs do not allege that LEED certified buildings do not require such services or that those services must be provided by a LEED-accredited professional in order to attain certification. Because there is no requirement that a builder hire LEED-accredited professionals at any level, let alone every level, to attain LEED certification, it is not plausible that each customer who opts for LEED certification is a customer lost to Plaintiffs.

With respect to Gifford's Lanham Act "False Advertising" claim, I wrote:

In alleging a violation of the Lanham Act, the Federal act prohibiting false advertising, the Amended Complaint states: USGBC's misrepresentations have an will continue to deceive consumers, voters, taxpayers, developers, municipalities and legislators at the local, state and federal levels. However, fraud requires "reasonable reliance" on the false statements. The difficulty here is that, although more plaintiffs have been added, they are still not plaintiffs that were "duped" by the USGBC's representations. Judge Sands concluded that the USGBC and Gifford, et al are not competitors:

 Judge Sands similarly held that Gifford, et al cannot prove reliance:

Even if Plaintiffs were to amend the [First Amended Complaint]  to include the proffered allegation that a single developer, Steve Bluestone, chose a LEED certified consultant rather than Gifford, Plaintiffs would not establish the required causal nexus: that Bluestone did so in reliance on the alleged false statement contained in a 2008 press release.

This order may not be the end of the Gifford v. USGBC story.  Gifford may appeal, and he retains the opportunity to file his state claims in New York state court.  Moreover, since the Judge did not resolve the merits of the claims, the debate over whether LEED buildings save energy is likely to rage on.

A Long Way to the Courthouse: the Region 7 EPA Headquarter Controversy

Yesterday, the City of Kansas and the County of Wyndotte sued the General Services Administration for moving the EPA Region 7 headquarters from an older LEED building in the Kansas City central business district to a former Applebee's headquarters in Lenexa, Kansas. The complaint is available here.

This is a fascinating suit in that it highlights the paradox of a green building on an unsustainable site. Lenexa can only be described as a typical midwestern sprawling suburb, and the proposed new EPA headquarters is in an office park.  A Google earth map of Lenexa is available here and the proposed building is available here

The lawsuit alleges that the GSA violated two executive orders mandating that Federal facilities be sustainable and located in urban cores.

EO 12,072 requires:

Federal facilities and Federal use of space in urban areas shall serve to strengthen the Nation’s cities and to make them attractive places to live and work” and mandates that such Federal space “shall conserve existing urban resources and encourage the development and redevelopment of cities.

and Executive Order 13,514 which mandates, among other things, that

the head of each Federal agency to “advance regional and local integrated planning by . . . (iii) ensuring that planning for new Federal facilities or new leases includes consideration of sites that are pedestrian friendly, near existing employment centers, and accessible to public transit, and emphasizes existing central cities. . . ."

The GSA defends its decision to move from a green building in the central business district to a suburban office park on two grounds--it is cheap and it is green: 

GSA spokeswoman Angela Brees said she could not comment on the lawsuit, but reasserted the agency's claim that the Lenexa building was the cheapest available, even when considering the cost of moving to a new office. [The building] also scored highest on technical criteria that include sustainability and design, she said. The owners of the building, which has been given a Silver rating by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, have vowed to upgrade it to meet LEED Gold standards and get a Platinum rating for operations and maintenance by the time employees arrive.

Putting aside the environmental implications, I would argue (and the Complaint alludes to it as well) that the Lenaxa decision does not hold up on a purely economic basis, let alone an environmental one.   The new site is located outside of the central business district, and has little access to transit.  This means that every time an EPA employee has to go to a  meeting, the courthouse and to other businesses in the course of their official duties, they must do so by car.  

Currently, the Federal government reimburses private vehicle travel at $.51 per mile.  Previously, the distance from the EPA headquarters to the Kansas City Federal Courthouse was .6 miles.  The distance from the Lenaxa facilitiy to the Federal courthouse is 21 miles.

According to the New York Times, the Applebee's HQ rent is more than the current rent.  On top of that, based on the above calculation, the taxpayer will be paying a $20 surcharge for every trip of an EPA Region 7 lawyer, paralegal, witness to the courthouse.  Of course, it will also mean the same $20 surcharge for any other trip of any Region 7 employee travelling to the Kansas City CBD on official business. 

Utilmately, it appears that this will not be a green decision, in either sense of the word.


Motion to Dismiss In USGBC v. Gifford Raises The Question: Who Is A USGBC Customer?

On Friday, the USGBC responded to Henry Gifford's amended complaint with a Motion To Dismiss for failure to state a legal claim (Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)) and for lack of subject matter jurisdiction (Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1)).

In essence, the USGBC's response has two prongs: 1) the Plaintiffs lack standing, as I predicted here; and 2) that the Plaintiffs could not demonstrate that they had been harmed by the USGBC's allegedly illegal conduct. Stephen Del Percio does a nice job of outlining the standing arguments here

In the back of the Memorandum of Law is an interesting discussion of the USGBC's marketing.  In the context of arguing that the New York Consumer Fraud Statute does not apply, the USGBC argues:

USGBC's marketing--which is before this Court on this motion--is directed at businesses and professionals.  The website, which is how USGBC advertises, defines the audience for USGBC's marketing.  LEED users are 'architects, real estate professionals, facility managers engineers, interior designers, landscape architects, construction managers, lenders and government officials...

I think this is a difficult argument, and not one with a lot of factual merit. 

The USGBC website has a link to a website entitled:

U.S. Green Building Council's Green Home Guide Connecting you to ideas, advice and green home professionals.

The purpose of the site is clearly to communicate information about LEED and green building directly to consumer homeowners. The Green Home Guide website offers a tool for homeowners to become acquainted with the LEED for Homes system:

It's FREE.NEW – The LEED for Homes Scoring Tool

Q: How close is your project to earning
LEED for Homes certification?

A: Probably much closer than you think.

As the building industry evolves, more residential projects already include sustainable features that contribute to certification. The LEED for Homes Scoring Tool will help you assess your project. By answering a few simple questions, you’ll not only learn just how close you are to earning certification, but also various steps you might take to get there. Plus you’ll gain important insight on the LEED for Homes rating system.

The USGBC even publishes a brochure for LEED® for Homes™ FAQ for Homeowners available here.

So, it's pretty clear that the USGBC is marketing directly to consumers, contrary to the Memorandum of Law in support of the USGBC's Motion to Dismiss.

The worst part is that there was no need for the USGBC to make this factually unsupported argument. Even if the USGBC advertises to consumers, the consumers that might have been harmed by the advertisement are not included amongst the plaintiffs, and are not represented by the factual misstatements alleged in the Amended Complaint. Making factually unsupported arguments may weaken the punch of the USGBC's clearer grounds for dismissal, and provide a toe hold for the Plaintiffs to plant seeds of doubt about the rest of the USGBC's arguments.


But Is There Fire: If LEED Is A Fraud, Why Aren't Developers Suing?

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this post are entirely those of the author, and do not represent the position of the USGBC or the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.

Yesterday, I discussed the fact that Henry Gifford filed an Amended Complaint in his suit against the USGBC for fraudulently claiming that LEED buildings save energy.  The post, as well as the Amended Complaint are available here. I also noted that Mr. Gifford and the other plaintiffs probably do not have standing to bring the suit because they were not harmed by the allegedly fraudulent advertising of the LEED system. 

Mr. Gifford alleges that the people and entities that have been and will be harmed include:

USGBC's misrepresentations have and will continue to deceive consumers and voters, taxpayers, developers, municipalities, and legislators at the local, state and federal levels.

Amended Complaint at Paragraph 57.

This brings up critical questions about the legitimacy of Mr. Gifford's claims:

If developers were really experiencing energy performance vastly out of proportion to their expectations, wouldn't there be suits by developers against their design professionals and/or the USGBC? 

If the Federal government, with one of the largest portfolios of LEED buildings, were really disappointed by their performance, wouldn't they stop using the system? 

If design professionals were spending money to obtain worthless credentials, then wouldn't architects (whose profession is down something like 50%) be lining up to demand their money back? 

If the problems that Gifford alleges are so fundamental, why is it that Henry Gifford and a few other plaintiffs who have rejected the LEED paradigm seem to be the only ones suing? 

The concept of abstract “rightness” does not play a very large role in the American judicial system.  With few exceptions, only a person harmed can bring suit to right the wrong done to him or her. So, even if you or I see something terribly “wrong” happening, if we are not harmed by it, we have no standing to bring suit. 

For example, a man stops by a street hustler and plays a shell game.  You are standing on the corner.  You see the street hustler take his money and bilk him.  The man sees it too, but shrugs his shoulders and walks away.  You cannot sue to get the guy’s money back—only he can (or press charges, etc). 

If there are no victims of the USGBC's "fraud", then Mr. Gifford's is really just a gadfly who is calling attention to himself by suing the USGBC.  If there is fraud, then we should see a rash of suits by plaintiffs who have actually been harmed--consumers and voters, taxpayers, developers, municipalities, and legislators at the local, state and federal levels.

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this post are entirely those of the author, and do not represent the position of the USGBC or the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.

Do Not Pass Go: Why The USGBC Is Probably Not An Illegal Monopoly

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this post are entirely those of the author, and do not represent the position of the USGBC or the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.

As almost anyone in the green community knows, last week LEED Critic Henry Gifford sued the USGBC for, essentially, a few different flavors of fraud.  Mr. Gifford sued the USGBC as an alleged representative of a class of people who had been duped by the USGBC.  I posted last week that I did not think that the class action would survive class certification.  In that post, I provided a 30-second manager version of Advanced Civil Procedure.  Today, it is Anti-Trust 101.

 The causes of action Mr. Gifford brought against the USGBC are the following:

  1. Monopolization through Fraud--Sherman Anti-Trust Act 15 USC Sec. 2
  2. Unfair Competition--Lanham Act 15 U.S.C. Sec. 1125(a)(1)(B)
  3. Deceptive Trade Practices--New York General Business Law Sec. 349 (a) and (h)
  4. False Advertising--New York State General Business Law Sec. 350-a(1) and Sec. 350-a(3)
  5. Wire Fraud--RICO--18 USC Sec. 1962(C)
  6. Unjust Enrichment

[To avoid confusion, I will note here that the Complaint has two Fourth Causes Of Action.]

I will address the various causes of action in different posts this week, starting with Monopolization.

The Sherman Act  is intended to prevent the combination of entities that could potentially harm competition, such as monopolies or cartels.

Section 2 of the Sherman Act, 26 Stat. 209, as amended, 15 U. S. C. § 2, makes it an offense for any person to “monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States . . . .”

To prove monoplization, the plaintiff must show  “(1) the possession of monopoly power in the
relevant market and (2) the willful acquisition or maintenance of that power as distinguished
from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or
historic accident.” United States v. Grinnell Corp., 384 U.S. 563, 570-71 (1966).

First, it is not entirely clear what market  the plaintiffs are alleging USGBC has a monopoly.  

A monopoly is a form of market structure where only one or very few companies dominate the total sales of a particular product or service. Monopoly power is defined as the ability to control price or to exclude competitors from the marketplace. The courts look to several criteria in determining market power but primarily focus on market share (the company's fractional share of the total relevant product and geographic market). A market share greater than 75 percent indicates monopoly power, a share less than 50 percent does not, and shares between 50 and 75 percent are inconclusive in and of themselves. In focusing on market shares, courts will include not only products that are exactly the same but also those that may be substituted for the company's product based on price, quality, and adaptability for other purposes. For example, an oat-based, round-shaped breakfast cereal may be considered a substitutable product for a rice-based, square-shaped breakfast cereal, or possibly even a granola breakfast bar.

Green Globes, Energy Star, Passive Haus, BREEM, and others exist in the realm of green building evaluation, but LEED certainly has the dominant market share.  But is this really the market? If building evaluation in general is the market, than surely the International Construction Code, which is the model code for most states and municipalities, has a broader market share and usage than LEED.  If energy performance is the market, then the ASHRAE codes which provide standards for energy performance and are used almost universally have a far more dominant market share.

 If professional certification of builders and design professionals is the market, than certifying to become a Registered Architect or a Professional Engineer must also compete with becoming a LEED accredited professional. 

Second, even assuming that LEED has a "monopoly" on some undefined market, Mr. Gifford must prove specific intent to acquire or maintain the monopoly position.  Mr. Gifford alleges a significant number of bad acts on the part of the USGBC, mostly centering around the USGBC's alleged misrepresentation of the energy performance of LEED buildings.  In the recitation of the claim, Mr. Gifford states that misrepresentation of energy performance of LEED buildings "is false and intended to mislead the consumer and monopolize the market for energy-efficient building design." 

The problem is, Mr. Gifford does not demonstrate how this false representation is conspiratorial or predatory.  The USGBC's actions, even if fraudulent, are not  intentionally prohibiting other rating systems from coming into existence or preventing other systems from proving they result in more energy efficient buildings. 

 So, Mr. Gifford's Anti-Trust Claim should go directly to jail--what a court may actually do is another matter entirely.

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this post are entirely those of the author, and do not represent the position of the USGBC or the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.

Is Henry Gifford Really Rosa Parks?

NOTE: The opinions expressed in this post are entirely those of the author, and do not represent the position of the USGBC or the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.

You had to know this was coming. I even predicted a Lanham Act and Consumer Fraud Act claim would be part of a good green litigation.

Yesterday, Henry Gifford, public critic of LEED (you may have read his Op-Eds in the New York Times) filed a class action law suit against the USGBC and its founders personally on behalf of "consumers, taxpayers, building design and construction professionals."  The allegations are essentially fraud and false advertising, an anti-trust claim and a RICO claim thrown in for good measure.  His theory is that the USGBC has falsely claimed that its rating system makes buildings save energy, and that building owners have spent more money to have their buildings certified, that professionals have gotten worthless professional credentials and people in general have been duped into thinking LEED has meaning. The Complaint can be downloaded here.

There will be a lot written on this suit--blog posts, client alerts, articles will dissect the wrongness or the rightness of the claims. Real estate and construction lawyers, including me, lit up at the sound of the stamp of the clerk in the Southern District of New York where the case was filed.

My initial take (hey--I have to get in my fair share of the follow-on publication) is that the case may have merit, but it has a bad plaintiff.  Rosa Parks was not the only person to object to segregated buses by refusing to give up their seat. She was chosen by the NAACP because she made a good plaintiff.

The plaintiffs in this case are Mr. Gifford, his company, and a resident of the state of Arizona, presumably representing the taxpayer, as nothing is stated in the Complaint about his occupation or other way he might have been harmed personally. 

I don't think that, as alleged, this suit will survive class certification.  In a class action suit, you must consider (among other things) whether the plaintiffs are enough alike so that their claims can be adjudicated together, whether the questions of fact and law are sufficiently similar, and whether the lead plaintiffs adquately represent members of the class.

Here, the Plaintiffs are purporting to file suit on behalf of a whole range of plaintiffs with all different harms--harms to building and design professionals who sought educational certifications, building owners who paid additional money to have their buildings certified and other unspecified "consumers", and taxpayers.

Let's put aside the fact that, as a general proposition, taxpayers do not have standing to sue.  There is a commonality problem and a causation problem for the class--did the USGBC's false statements cause the same type of harm to the same type of plaintiff.  Indeed, did the false statements cause any harm at all to these plaintiffs.

Why go through this academic class certification exercise, except to prove to Professor Burbank, the professor of my Advance Civil Procedure Class on Class Actions at the University of Pennsylvania that, despite the fact that I rarely got up for his 8 am class, I did, in fact, learn something?

It matters because the allegations in the suit matter.  Is the USGBC engaging in intentional, fraudulent actions? Or was it a good organization seeking to benefit the world by promoting more ecologically friendly building practices? Or a little from column A and a little from Column B.

A good lawsuit would elucidate this--through the discovery process, emails might come to light showing that the USGBC did or did not intentionally defraud its constituent groups.  But if the class is not certified, it will be Mr. Gifford, suing on his own behalf.  Was Mr. Gifford harmed by USGBC's actions? Probably not.

To the best of my research, Mr. Gifford is not a LEED AP, and indeed, from his website and publications, he has outspokenly denounced the USGBC and LEED.  Mr. Gifford does not appear to own any property certified LEED.  In short--the USGBC's actions have not harmed him His career, if anything, has been enhanced by the USGBC's position.

Mr. Gifford is a self-proclaimed energy efficiency guru, his website does not provide any case studies on the buildings he has done, and a quick google search reveals Mr. Gifford is inolved in a number of PassiveHouse projects (passivhaus is a competing system for energy efficient buildings).  If Mr. Gifford is the last plaintiff left standing, it will be a much harder lawsuit to bring, let alone win.

It does beg the question, though, even if this law suit fails, are there other plaintiffs waiting in the wings?  For my next post--assuming the class is certified, do the claims have any merit?

 NOTE: The opinions expressed in this post are entirely those of the author, and do not represent the position of the USGBC or the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.

Smarting Over Smart Meters

Earth2Tech ran two stories recently on backlash by customers against utility companies for unusually high electricity bills after smart meters were installed. 

In Bakersfield, California, a homeowner actually sued Pacific Gas and Electric on behalf of himself and a class of smart meter recipients:

The original plaintiff, Bakersfield resident Pete Flores, filed the suit after his electric bill tripled fro $200 to $600 a month — right after having a new smart meter installed in his home. Objecting that PG&E described the meter as a money-saving device, he decided to sue for fraudulent advertising, negligence and unjust enrichment

The complaint is available here.

The only evidence of the alleged fraudulent, negligent and unjust failure to accurtately measure Mr. Flores' electricity was an increase in his bills, with "no change in usage pattern on the part of Plantiff."  Complaint at 5.  Evidence of complaints of fellow class members comes from:

countless complaints on the internet, over 100 complaints to activist group TURN (The Utility Reform Network) and a special meeting led by State Assemblyman Dean Florez...

Complaint at 5.

After reading the Complaint, I have a few questions:

1.  What evidence is there that Mr. Flores did not change his usage patterns other than his electricity meter reading?

2. Is it possible, that, as compared to the meter maid stopping by and checking your traditional meter, a smart meter is actually accurately measuring electricity usage, and Mr. Flores was actually being poorly measured, BEFORE, not after the installation of smart meters? 

3. What is the misreading rate of meter maids? More than 100 complaints across the state of California for the same time period? 

Smart grid technology, and smart meters are grassroots level green building technologies which are likely to effect millions of homeowners nationwide.  It is likely that we will see more lawsuits like Mr. Flores'.