Citizen suits come in two forms. In the more common form, a private citizen can bring a lawsuit against a citizen, corporation, or government body for engaging in conduct prohibited by the statute. For example, a citizen can sue a corporation under the Clean Water Act for illegally polluting a waterway. In the less common form, a private citizen can bring a lawsuit against a government body for failing to perform a nondiscretionary duty. For example, a private citizen could sue the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to promulgate regulations that the Clean Water Act required it to promulgate.
In 1970, with the Clean Air Act 1970, the United States Congress began including specific provisions for citizens to bring suit against violators or government agencies to enforce environmental laws. Today most environmental laws have provisions for citizen suits and they have become a major means of ensuring compliance with environmental laws. Some non-environmental statutes, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Amendments Act, also contain citizen suit provisions, but the majority of regulatory statutes do not.
In the past, even when a statute does not contain an express provision allowing citizens to bring suit to enforce the statute, courts have found that the statute creates an implied right for them to do so. See, for example, J.I. Case Co. v. Borak, 377 U.S. 426 (1964). However, cases like J.I. Case Co. v. Borak, have been abrogated and are no longer good law (See, e.g., Scales v. Memorial Medical Center of Jacksonville, Inc., 690 F.Supp. 1002). The general trend in modern law suggests that standing in such cases will be found if it is provided for in the statute. Otherwise, in order to establish standing, the courts have required three elements. First, the plaintiff must have suffered an “injury in fact”-an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) “actual or imminent, not ‘conjectural’ or ‘hypothetical,’”. Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of-the injury has to be “fairly ... trace[able] to the challenged action of the defendant, and not ... th[e] result [of] the independent action of some third party not before the court.” Third, it must be “likely,” as opposed to merely “speculative,” that the injury will be “redressed by a favorable decision.” (Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, (1992)).
Environmental laws that allow citizen suits include: