A UC Hastings alum is helping cities and counties in California hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change—and a court ruling last month has improved his chances of success.
Matt Edling '07 and his colleagues filed trailblazing lawsuits against 36 oil and gas companies in July on behalf of three California communities under threat from rising sea levels: the counties of Marin and San Mateo and the city of Imperial Beach. The complaints argued that the companies knew for decades about the harmful effects of their carbon emissions but actively hid and denied that knowledge to protect their profits. The plaintiffs say the companies, rather than taxpayers, should pay the communities' costs of adapting to climate change.
In March, a federal judge sent the three suits back to state court, a favorable ruling given that earlier climate liability lawsuits have failed under federal law. The same month, a different judge ruled that similar suits by San Francisco and Oakland, filed by another firm, would stay in federal court. The decision in Edling's cases will be reviewed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and may progress to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Edling's firm is serving as outside counsel in six of the nine climate liability cases currently under way in the U.S. The initial cases were followed by suits in December by the city of Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County, and in January by the city of Richmond. Those suits were the first ever to argue that companies should be held responsible for climate change-related harm beyond sea level rise.
Edling says his motivation for pursuing the cases was personal. “I’m a parent, and the prospect of leaving the world in the shape that it’s in is not something I'm particularly interested in doing,” he says. “Climate change is the existential crisis of our time, and these communities are facing massive costs that will have to be paid either by their taxpayers or by the oil, gas and coal companies who caused them. And that’s what these lawsuits are all about.”
Edling's passion for public-interest work stems from following a long line of social justice advocates. His grandmother was one of the first teachers in Boston's Head Start program, and his father was a psychologist for low-income children. He also credits his tenure at UC Hastings, where he worked with Professor Mark Aaronson, founding director of the Civil Justice Clinics, and chief financial officer David Seward on projects that served residents of the disadvantaged Tenderloin neighborhood. “UC Hastings, and Mark and David in particular, show students the importance of law in making a society run better,” Edling says.
After graduating in 2007, Edling joined the Bay Area firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, where he mainly represented public agencies. Among other cases, he sued oil companies on behalf of families whose homes had been contaminated and recovered millions of dollars for public employees, retirees and victims of Ponzi schemes. He cofounded his own firm, Sher Edling LLP, in 2016 to focus on high-impact environmental cases.
“Representing public entities is particularly satisfying, because I think the role that our local and state governments play in our everyday lives is underappreciated,” Edling says. “To have the opportunity to help them stand up for their residents, workers, and businesses is pretty rewarding.”