More Than Parking Tickets: Appellate Division Rules that New Jersey Municipal Courts Can Assess Civil Penalties for Spill Act Violations

Municipal courts are typically called on to rule on such matters as parking violations and speeding tickets. Some statutes, however, give them jurisdiction over a surprising variety of actions. In its published opinion in State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection v. Alsol Corporation, the Appellate Division held that one powerful environmental law, the Spill Compensation and Control Act (Spill Act), grants municipal courts jurisdiction to assess civil penalties for violations of the statute, even where the department has not already gone through an administrative process to assess such penalties.

DEP’s complaint against Alsol arose from an October 2016 oil spill at a property it owns in Milltown. According to factual assertions made by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), the spill was the result of a contractor’s faulty demolition of three electrical transformers. Oil from the transformers, later determined to contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), spilled onto the surface and into a storm drain. The oil allegedly reached Farrington Lake and may have reached Mill Pond and Lawrence Brook, which a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Fish and Wildlife Officer closed to fishing.

The complaint, filed in Milltown Municipal Court, did not allege a violation of the Spill Act’s fundamental prohibition on the discharge of hazardous substances. Instead, it alleged that Alsol had violated a regulatory provision that requires certain parties to remediate the discharge after it occurs. Alsol fell within the scope of that regulation because its status as the current owner of the contaminated site made it a person “in any way responsible” for the discharged oil within the meaning of the Spill Act’s liability provisions. DEP did not file any complaint against the contractor.

The municipal court found that it did not have jurisdiction to impose the civil penalties sought by DEP in its complaint. DEP appealed to the Law Division, which reversed, and on Alsol’s appeal, the case reached the Appellate Division, where the court focused first on Section 11u.d of the Spill Act, which expressly provides that both the Superior Court and the municipal courts “shall have jurisdiction to impose a civil penalty for a violation” of the statute. It disagreed with the municipal court’s conclusion that the provision granted jurisdiction to the municipal courts only “where a finding of liability had already been adjudicated” and a penalty imposed by an administrative law judge or the Superior Court. Instead, citing Middlesex County v. Browning Ferris, a 1991 appellate decision that construed a similar provision of the Solid Waste Management Act, as well as New Jersey Court Rule 7:2-1(h), the Appellate Division held that a “plain reading” of Section 11u.d showed the legislature’s intent to authorize DEP to seek civil penalties against Spill Act violators in the municipal courts. It was one of several options given to DEP by the legislature for enforcing the statute, which also include bringing a civil action to recover costs or natural resource damages and levying a civil administrative penalty.

The case will presumably return to Milltown, where the municipal court may have to grapple with another threshold issue: whether DEP has alleged facts that show that Alsol in fact violated the Spill Act. While that statute (in Section 11c) flatly prohibits discharges, and authorizes DEP (in Section 11f.a(1)) to issue a directive to clean up a discharge (which DEP did not do here), it does not, by its terms, require remediation. The affirmative obligation to remediate is imposed on parties like Alsol by Section 1.3 of the Brownfield Act. That obligation, in turn, triggers the regulatory obligation that DEP charged Alsol with violating. Regardless of the outcome of this specific case, however, the holding in Alsol is clear: Spill Act violators can be brought before a municipal court.

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