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Middlesex County Health Department v. Browning Ferris Industries of Elizabeth

Decided: November 22, 1991.

MIDDLESEX COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT/CROSS-RESPONDENT,
v.
BROWNING FERRIS INDUSTRIES OF ELIZABETH, NJ, INC., MIDCO WASTE SYSTEMS AND UNITED SERVICE DISPOSAL, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS/CROSS/APPELLANTS



On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Middlesex County.

Antell, Long and Thomas, JJ. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Thomas, J.s.c., (temporarily assigned).

Thomas

This appeal requires us to interpret a section of the Solid Waste Management Act, N.J.S.A. 13:1E-9f, to determine if civil actions to impose fines for violations of the act may be brought in the Municipal Court in addition to the Superior Court. We conclude they can and reverse.

On September 15, 1988, Middlesex County adopted a recycling program by amendment to its Solid Waste Management Plan. The plan was adopted pursuant to the Solid Waste Management Act (N.J.S.A. 13:1E-1 et seq.), which established a statutory framework to coordinate the collection, disposal and utilization activity of solid waste within the state.

On October 28, 1988, the recycling plan was approved by the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. The plan was approved, "effective immediately", but the Commissioner directed the County to make minor modifications, as contemplated under N.J.S.A. 13:1E-24.

One of the modifications directed county health inspectors to make visual inspections of the unloading of waste transport vehicles. The inspectors were to determine if the loads consisted of 20% or more of designated recyclables. If so, enforcement procedures were to be implemented. The county failed to formally amend its recycling plan to include the modifications. Nevertheless, the County complied with the modification in actual practice and did inspect the unloading of transport trucks.

On August 16, 1989, the Middlesex County Health Department issued a "Notice of Violation" and "Penalty Assessment Notice" to defendant Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI). BFI, a licensed waste hauler, allegedly discharged a load containing 25% mandated recyclables into the Edison Municipal Landfill on August 11, 1989. BFI failed to pay the assessed $100.00 penalty within 15 days. After giving defendant notice of a number of violations, plaintiff finally brought an action in the Municipal Court of the Township of Edison against BFI for

violation of the Middlesex County Solid Waste Management Plan, as amended.

BFI moved to dismiss the summons, claiming the Superior Court alone had jurisdiction to hear the complaint and that the Middlesex County Recycling Plan (MCRP) was invalid. The municipal court agreed it did not have jurisdiction and granted BFI's motion. The municipal court also found the MCRP was invalid because it had never been formally adopted by the County Freeholders.

On Middlesex County's appeal to the Law Division, that court upheld the dismissal concurring that municipal courts lack jurisdiction under the statute to hear cases. The Law Division disagreed with the municipal court's invalidation of the MCRP and held the plan was valid and enforceable.

Middlesex County appealed the ruling that the municipal court lacked jurisdiction to conduct plenary hearings under the statute. The State joined as amicus curiae. BFI cross-appealed, challenging the validity of the MCRP.

The Solid Waste Management Act was adopted in 1970. The predecessor to the section forming the basis of the present controversy was N.J.S.A. 13:1E-9c. It read:

Any person who violates the provisions of this act or any code, rule or regulation promulgated pursuant to this act shall be liable to a penalty of not more than $3,000.00 per day to be collected in a civil action commenced by a local board of health or the commissioner by a summary proceeding under The Penalty Enforcement Law (N.J.S. 2A:58-1 et seq.) in the Superior Court, County Court, county district court, or a municipal court, all of which shall have jurisdiction to enforce said Penalty Enforcement Law in connection with this act. If the violation is of a continuing nature, each day during which it continues after the ...


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