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Appellate Division Reverses Order Denying Motion to Dismiss NJCRA Claims against New Jersey DEP Employees on the Basis of Qualified Immunity

By:  Benjamin H. Zieman, Esq.

In the recent precedential opinion of Radiation Data, Inc. v. N.J. Dep’t of Envtl. Prot., 2018 N.J. Super. LEXIS 149 (App. Div. Nov. 2, 2018), the Appellate Division highlighted the importance of resolving a public employee’s assertion of qualified immunity on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim that was filed under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.  In doing so, the Appellate Division sent a clear message to lower courts that a perceived need for discovery is not an excuse for dodging the pure legal question of whether a right is “clearly established,” and that courts must remember that qualified immunity is not just a defense to liability but is also an immunity from suit, including the burdens attendant to litigation.

Radiation Data, Inc. (“RDI”) filed a claim under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c), against several employees of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) for allegedly violating RDI’s constitutional rights as administrative enforcement litigation proceeded in the Office of Administrative Law.  Beyond claiming that NJDEP did not pursue enforcement actions against other radon companies for the same kinds of violations, RDI alleged that several NJDEP employees refused to respond to RDI’s telephone calls and emails regarding business and compliance matters, channeled communications between the adverse parties through counsel, prohibited RDI from hand-delivering a license renewal form to the NJDEP’s offices, made several threatening remarks to or about RDI, refused to meet with an RDI representative, and uttered an anti-Semitic slur about the President of RDI.  The issues in this precedential opinion were: (1) whether RDI’s substantive due process claim against the NJDEP employees should have been dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity; and (2) whether RDI’s equal protection claim against the NJDEP employees should have been dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity.  The trial court, on a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 4:6-2(e), answered both questions in the negative, so the NJDEP employees appealed.

On leave to appeal granted, the Appellate Division found that the trial court “misapplied principles of qualified immunity from suit” in denying the NJDEP employees’ motion to dismiss.  The trial court essentially held that consideration of qualified immunity had to wait until summary judgment.  But the Appellate Division wrote that “the trial court must exercise its discretion in a way that protects the substance of the qualified immunity defense . . . so that officials are not subjected to unnecessary and burdensome discovery or trial proceedings.”  Indeed, “unless the plaintiff’s allegations state a claim of violation of clearly established law, a defendant pleading qualified immunity is entitled to dismissal before the commencement of discovery.”  Thus, since “qualified immunity is not simply immunity from a final judgment, but is immunity from suit,” and since “[t]he claims of constitutional deprivation [we]re ripe . . . for dismissal on immunity grounds,” the Appellate Division “discern[ed] no need to withhold immunity-based dismissal, pending discovery.”

With respect to RDI’s equal protection claim, the Appellate Division wrote that it was based on the “class-of-one” theory, which required proof that RDI was both intentionally and irrationally treated differently from others who were similarly situated.  The Appellate Division found that the NJDEP employees were entitled to qualified immunity on the selective enforcement claim because the regulatory action was “multi-dimensional” and because RDI, the largest radon mitigation business in New Jersey, was not similarly situated to other such businesses.  The Appellate Division also found that the NJDEP employees were entitled to qualified immunity on the disparate treatment claim because they had a rational basis to limit and channel RDI’s contacts given “the contentious adversarial context . . . existing while the administrative case was pending.”  Further, the Appellate Division found that “RDI had no ‘clearly established right’ to dictate how [the NJDEP] was to communicate with RDI while the hotly-contested litigation was ongoing.”  Indeed, “[g]overnment must retain the discretion to respond to private parties in a manner it finds most efficient and effective.”

The Appellate Division reached the same conclusion with respect to RDI’s substantive due process claim, which was grounded on an alleged violation of the right “to engage in common occupations of life ‘free from unreasonable governmental interference.’”  While a substantive due process violation is only actionable if the official conduct was “arbitrary, or conscience shocking, in a constitutional sense,” the Appellate Division found that NJDEP’s decisions “to pursue regulatory violations against RDI and to channel communications through counsel as the administrative case became increasingly contentions do not ‘shock the conscience.’”  Thus, “[t]he conduct alleged by RDI did not infringe upon any ‘clearly established’ constitutional rights of RDI.”

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