The primary issue before the court is whether the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) may sue a county for its alleged failure to adopt an adequate solid waste management plan in accordance with the Solid Waste Management Act N.J.S.A. 13:1E-1 et seq., (the Act) instead of exercising its own administrative powers to develop a satisfactory plan.
DEP has filed suit against seven counties -- Hudson, Middlesex, Hunterdon, Mercer, Somerset, Union and Monmouth.*fn1 Although
the allegations against the defendants vary to some extent, the focus of the complaint is that each county has failed to make adequate provision in its solid waste management plan for siting landfills and resource recovery facilities. The relief sought includes declarations that the counties have failed to adopt plans which comply with the Act and directions that they adopt plan amendments, including provisions for interdistrict agreements with other counties. The complaint also seeks imposition of statutory penalties against the defendant counties.
Mercer and Hunterdon have moved to dismiss. They argue, first of all, that DEP has improperly joined the seven counties in a single lawsuit in Middlesex County rather than filing separate lawsuits in each county. In the alternative, they argue that the action should be dismissed because the exclusive remedy for a county's failure to discharge its solid waste planning responsibilities is DEP's exercise of its own planning powers.
There are two prerequisites for permissive joinder of parties: the right to relief asserted by the plaintiffs or against the defendants: (1) must arise "out of or in respect of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences," and (2) must involve a "question of law or fact common to all of them." R. 4:29-1(a). "The aim of permissive joinder is to allow all parties to obtain the largest efficient unit of litigation." MacNeil v. Klein, 141 N.J. Super. 394, 408 (App.Div.1976), certif. den. 72 N.J. 455 (1976). The court's guide in deciding whether to permit joinder "is the joint policy of avoiding a multiplicity of suits and expediting the determination of legal controversies. . . . Thus, the addition of parties should be
allowed without limit so long as the rule's two requirements are met and so long as the trial will be just and convenient." Id.
In determining whether the rule's first requirement has been met, "[c]ourts have adhered to no hard and fast approach to the term 'transaction or series of transactions.' What they look for is a logical relationship between claims which 'would permit all reasonably related claims for relief by or against different parties to be tried in a single proceeding.'" Id. at 409-410, quoting Mosley v. General Motors Corp., 497 F.2d 1330, 1333 (8th Cir.1974).
Such a logical relationship may be found in DEP's allegations and demands for relief against the six defendant counties. A central theme of the Act is that solid waste planning must be conducted on a regional basis and coordinated statewide. See N.J.S.A. 13:1E-2(a) and 2(b)(6). DEP is required to adopt a statewide solid waste management plan. N.J.S.A. 13:1E-6(a)(3). Furthermore, when a county is unable to locate sufficient disposal facilities within its own borders, it is required to enter into an agreement with another county to dispose of part or all of its solid waste in the other county. N.J.S.A. 13:1E-21(b)(3). DEP alleges that each of the counties has failed to enter into interdistrict agreements, which could be entered into between two or more of the defendants. DEP also alleges that the combination of planning failures of the defendant counties is contributing to a statewide solid waste crisis. Accordingly, the alleged planning failures of all defendants may be appropriately viewed as "so causally related or closely allied or related in character . . . as to constitute components or links in the same evolving complex of events," MacNeil v. Klein, supra, 141 N.J. Super. at 408, quoting 2 Schnitzer & Wildstein, N.J. Rules Service 1046 (1954), and hence to satisfy the first requirement for permissive joinder.
As for the second requirement, there is no real dispute that the allegations against the six defendants raise common questions of law and fact. One such issue is the threshold legal
question, discussed in Part II of this opinion, of whether DEP may maintain a suit for injunctive relief and penalties rather than exercising its own administrative powers when a county fails to discharge its planning responsibilities under the Act.
Thus, both requirements for permissive joinder have been met.
Mercer and Hunterdon counties also urge that the venue provisions of R. 4:3-2(a)(2) preclude this court from hearing DEP's claims against them. This rule provides that in any action brought against a county which does not involve real property, venue shall be laid "in the county in which the cause of action arose." The moving parties acknowledge that DEP's cause of action against Middlesex County arose in Middlesex. However, they urge that DEP's cause of action against each of them is separate from that against Middlesex and arose in their own respective counties. The foundation for this argument is that R. 4:3-2(a)(2) refers to "cause of action" in the singular, without recognizing that more than one cause of action may be stated in the same complaint. The issue presented is whether the venue requirement of R. 4:3-2(a)(2) should be read to preclude joinder of claims against several counties, which qualify for permissive joinder under R. 4:29-1(a), unless all the causes of action stated in the complaint arise in the same county.
Venue requirements are not jurisdictional. Doyley v. Schroeter, 191 N.J. Super. 120, 123 (Law Div.1983). Rather, they are rules of practice designed to place litigation at a location convenient to parties and witnesses. Id. at 126-128. Accordingly, an action may be transferred from one venue to another where the convenience of parties and witnesses is not served by strict application of the venue rules. R. 4:3-3(a)(3); see also Diodato v. Camden Cty. Park Comm'n, 136 N.J. Super. 324, 327-328 (App.Div.1975); Engel v. Gosper, 71 N.J. Super. 573 (Law Div.1962). Our Supreme Court also has made exceptions to normal venue requirements for efficiency and
consistency in the handling of complex public litigation. See, e.g., Southern Burlington Cty. N.A.A.C.P. v. Mount Laurel Tp., 92 N.J. 158, 216 (1983) (all Mount Laurel litigation assigned to three judges sitting in multi-county districts). In those circumstances, the same policies of efficient judicial management that underlie the permissive joinder rule have taken precedence over the venue rules. Moreover, separate actions venued in different counties may be consolidated in a single court if all claims involve "a common question of law or fact arising out of the same transaction or series of transactions." R. 4:38-1(a). This means that DEP could have filed separate actions against each of the counties and then moved to consolidate. Therefore, a reading of R. 4:3-2(a)(2) that permits multiple counties to be joined initially in a single action has the virtue of avoiding such a two-step process in order to place related claims before the same court.
One reading of R. 4:3-2(a)(2) that permits the maintenance of a single lawsuit against multiple counties is to view all claims which qualify for permissive joinder under R. 4:29-1(a) as stating a single "cause of action." Alternatively, if the complaint is read to state separate causes of action against the different counties, R. 4:3-2(a)(2) may be considered satisfied if any of the causes of action arose in the county in which the complaint is filed. Either construction serves to harmonize the permissive joinder and venue rules and avoids the fragmentation of litigation which, in the interests of sound judicial administration, should be tried before a single court. ...