In conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) move to relax enforcement efforts, and despite criticism of the EPA’s move, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has suspended collection of civil penalty payments for six weeks – until at least May 31, 2020 – in a move that could be a demonstration that federal government recognizes that easing the regulatory burdens on businesses is one way of trying to get the economy back on track. Many settlement agreements with regard to environmental violations contain civil penalty provisions to which this temporary suspension effort would apply. Under the DOJ policy, affected parties may voluntarily continue paying their full penalties or just make interest-only payments.

U.S. attorneys’ offices were directed to stop affirmative civil debt collection in a March 31, 2020 letter from the acting director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. The letter stated that the policy does not apply to criminal penalties. In a follow-up letter on April 13, 2020, the acting director said that the suspension of required payments should not be interpreted to mean there is a broader relaxation of enforcement efforts.

“The temporary suspension does not impact a [U.S. attorneys’ office]’s ability to investigate, file complaints, litigate to judgment or settle any [affirmative civil enforcement] matter,” the April letter said. “The temporary suspension does not apply to ongoing litigation, appeals or cases that are not subject to a final, no appealable judgment.”

The temporary suspension could be extended by legislation or other administrative action.