Attorney Fees May Be Awarded in Cost Recovery Actions in New Jersey

11.1Environmental cost recovery actions in New Jersey are typically brought pursuant to the New Jersey Spill Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 58:10-23.llf, but the Spill Act has no provision for awarding attorneys fees to the prevailing party. The New Jersey Environmental Rights Act (“ERA”), N.J.S.A. 2A:35A-10, provides for attorneys’ and experts’ fees, but an ERA action is only permitted where there is either a continuous or intermittent environmental violation and there is a likelihood that the violation will recur in the future. The ERA was the mechanism for interested parties to act as “private attorneys general” in enforcing environmental laws, including inadequate enforcement of environmental laws by the Department of Environmental Protection. Indeed, the purpose of the ERA was to compel compliance by awarding injunctive or equitable relief. Thus, until recently, ERA was not found to provide for monetary compensation for remediation of property due to past conduct.

In Bradley v. Kovelesky, the current property owner sued prior owners after soil and groundwater contamination was discovered. The claims were not originally made pursuant to the ERA and defendants objected to plaintiffs amending the complaint to assert an ERA claim. To decide whether to allow the amended pleading, the court had to decide whether such a claim would be futile. The appellate court concluded that an ERA claim is not futile because the Brownfield and Contaminated Site Remediation Act, N.J.S.A. 58:10B-1.3, requires that a “person in any way responsible for a hazardous substances … shall remediate the discharge.” Thus, plaintiffs argued that because the prior owner has not and currently is not conducting remediation, it is a continuous violation of the Brownfield Act. Further, if the prior owner’s failure to remediate continues into the future, it will remain in violation of the Brownfield Act. Based on this scenario, the court found a continuous or intermittent violation that is likely to “recur in the future” as required by an ERA lawsuit.

Thus, plaintiffs were permitted to amend their complaint to assert an ERA claim.

ERA contains a powerful tool for a cost recovery plaintiff. “In any action under this act the court may in appropriate cases award to the prevailing party reasonable counsel and expert witness fees, but not to exceed a total of $ 50,000 in an action brought against a local agency or the Department of Environmental Protection, where the prevailing party achieved reasonable success on the merits.”  Let’s see whether this decision gives new life to the ERA. Certainly the threat of attorneys’ fees and experts’ costs are often the motivation for an amicable resolution to cost recovery litigation.

We will watch this case to see whether it is ultimately tried and fees awarded.

Property Seller’s Failure to Disclose Environmental Cleanup Actionable, Even For “As Is” Sale

On August 18, 2016, a New Jersey appellate court ruled that a property seller’s failure to disclose environmental contamination and cleanup could expose the seller to liability for fraud. In Catena v. Raytheon Co. the Appellate Division reversed a trial court’s decision which had granted summary judgment based on the statute of limitations. The Appellate Division found that the “discovery rule” applied to claims asserting fraud and that Catena, the purchaser of commercial property, was not time barred in his lawsuit which was brought more than a decade after his purchase. The “discovery rule” delays the commencement of the limitations period, i.e., a plaintiff’s claim does not accrue until the plaintiff discovers, or by an exercise of reasonable diligence and intelligence should have discovered that he may have a basis for an action claim. In a real estate setting, intentional nondisclosure of a material defect which is not observable by a Buyer can give rise to a finding of fraud by the Seller and the statute of limitations will not bar a suit many years after the sale if the Buyer, after appropriate due diligence, had no reason to know of the defect.

9-13In this case, the Seller, individually or through his partnership, owned the property since 1983. When the Seller defaulted on its mortgage in 1987, Seller’s mortgage lender (“Lender”) took possession of the property and began making efforts for its sale. Lender engaged a consultant to take soil samples; it was discovered that the property was contaminated with perchloroethylene (“PCE”). In June 1988, the Lender and Seller arranged for the excavation and removal of the known contaminated soil. The environmental consultant specifically warned that it could not guarantee that all the contaminated soil had been removed. Neither the Lender, the Seller, nor the environmental consultant notified the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) of the contamination.

Catena entered into a contract to purchase the property “as is” later in June 1988. There were no representations or warranties made by the Seller. On the day before the closing, the Lender provided Catena’s attorney with a 1987 affidavit submitted to the NJDEP which stated that, on information and belief, the only occupants on the site had been a dry wall construction contractor, a bank, and a trucking concern, and that they had not engaged in operations which involved hazardous substances. This form affidavit was commonly used in the 1980s to demonstrate the non-applicability of the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act (“ECRA”), a statute that required remediation prior to property transfers in certain circumstances. The Seller also provided Catena with a copy of the 1988 affidavit that Seller submitted to the NJDEP which included the same information as the Lender’s affidavit. This later submission was to confirm that the sale to Catena was not subject to ECRA. Neither affidavit mentioned the discovery of contamination or the soil removal that had been undertaken.

After the closing of title in November 1988, Catena retained a consultant to perform an environmental assessment which found that the past uses of the property were far more extensive than those stated in the affidavits, including production of aircraft parts, assembly of mechanical electrical parts, a textile knitting and dyeing operation, the manufacture of prefabricated exterior building facades, and a distribution center for screen-printing inks and related supplies. These prior uses would likely have caused the sale to Catena to require compliance with the ECRA statute. The Assessment recommended that Catena investigate the possible presence of contamination, but Catena did not investigate. Instead, nearly ten years later when Catena sought to refinance the property, his prospective lender hired a consultant to conduct an investigation. That investigation found PCE contamination, which it reported to the NJDEP. The consultant opined that the likely cause of the contamination was the historical use of the property in airplane-related industries.

Beginning in 1998, Catena proceeded with a robust but intermittent investigation of his property. In the early 2000s, groundwater and stream contamination was discovered.

Catena sued the Seller, and the prior owners and operators of the property, including those who likely caused the PCE contamination, pursuant to the NJ Spill Act. Through discovery in the litigation, Catena obtained reports and communications between the Seller and the Lender concerning the partial cleanup of soil that they had performed but did not tell him about. Catena amended his complaint to assert claims of common law fraud and violations of the Consumer Fraud Act against the Seller and Lender. Catena testified at his deposition that he did not know of the contamination before his purchase and admitted that he did not ask the Seller or Lender whether there were any environmental issues. He also did not investigate the past uses of the property prior to the purchase.

The Seller and Lender moved for summary judgment with regard to the fraud claims, alleging that more than six years (the statute of limitations for fraud claims) had passed since these claims accrued. The trial court agreed with the Seller, finding that Catena should have been aware of the fraud when he entered into an administrative agreement with the NJDEP in June 1998 to conduct the investigation of his property. Catena appealed, arguing that the fraud was not discovered until December 2007 during Seller’s deposition.

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s ruling and found that even though Catena learned of the contamination in the late 1980s, he wasn’t aware (and could not have become aware) of the fraud until he learned of it in discovery. The court explained the importance and general acceptance of the discovery rule in cases involving fraud: the victim’s lack of awareness of the fraud is the wrongdoer’s very object. The rule thus prevents the wrongdoer from benefiting from his own deceit.

The court concluded that when Catena first became aware of contamination, he had no reason to believe that the Seller or the Lender knew about these site conditions. They had not made any representations and their affidavits to NJDEP did not show any suspicious prior users (which were only required to be identified back to 1984). Indeed, Catena’s consultant concluded that the contamination was caused by “airplane related industries” and none of the prior users in the Seller’s and Lender’s affidavits were involved in that industry.

Moreover, Catena would not have learned about the partial cleanup by conducting a public records search, as the contamination and remediation was not reported to NJDEP. Thus, there was no evidence that a more diligent pre-suit investigation would have led to the information about the fraud.

Given these facts, the court concluded that the fraud and Consumer Fraud Act claims were not time barred. The court made clear that the application of the discovery rule is fact and case sensitive and requires a careful analysis of when the purchaser became aware of facts that would alert a reasonable person to the possibility of an actionable claim.

The inescapable conclusion for real estate sellers is that they will face viable claims by purchasers years after a sale if sellers fail to disclose known environmental conditions and remediation activities even in “as is” sale transactions with no affirmative representations or warranties.

New Jersey Appellate Court Rules That Insurance Rights May Be Transferred Without Consent of Carrier After The Events That Trigger Coverage

In Givaudan Fragrances Corporation v. Aetna, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Court held that an assignee was permitted to pursue coverage on policies that were written to a different insured. The Appellate Division’s decision will certainly help companies, or individuals, who are successors in interest to a policy holder to obtain coverage for events that happened during the policy period, years or even decades ago, even if they themselves were not named insureds under the policy.

In this case, the policies were issued in 1964 – 1986 to Givaudan Corporation. Due to contamination at a Clifton, NJ facility in 1987 and 1988, Givaudan Corporation entered into Administrative Consent Orders with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection which provided for remediation. Thereafter, there were numerous corporate reorganizations that resulted in the creation of Givaudan Fragrances Corporation (GFC), which inherited various assets and liabilities, including the environmental liabilities associated with the Clifton facility.

In the 2000s, US EPA and the NJDEP commenced administrative proceedings and litigation against GFC relating to the Clifton property and alleged discharges from the property to the Passaic River. The dredge remedy for the Passaic River is expected to cost from $500 million to $1.7 billion, a new record for a Superfund cleanup.

GFC sought insurance coverage under the policies issued to Givaudan Corporation with regard to the USEPA and NJDEP actions. The carriers declined to provide coverage because GFC was not a named insured and the policies required consent of the carriers (which was neither sought nor given) to effectuate an assignment. GFC commenced a suit for coverage, and a year later, Givaudan Corporation (then called Givaudan Flavors) assigned its “insurance rights” to GFC.

GFC and the carriers sought summary judgment on the question of whether there had been an effective assignment, i.e., was GFC an insured. The trial court granted the carriers’ motion and dismissed the complaint, finding that the assignment was not merely a transfer of a limited claim but was, in effect, a transfer of the policy without carrier approval.

The Appellate Division reversed, reinstated the complaint and granted GFC’s motion for partial summary judgment, explaining that for occurrence-based policies, “the peril insured is the occurrence itself.” Therefore, “[o]nce the occurrence takes place, coverage attaches even though the claim may not be made for some time thereafter.” So, although a policy cannot be assigned, once a loss occurs, an insured’s claim under a policy may be assigned without the insurer’s consent. This is because the carrier’s risk has not been enlarged by the assignment. Instead, an assignment merely alters the identity of the claimant. The carriers’ “obligation to provide coverage to the party deemed to be an insured under the policies arose at the time of the loss. Although the precise amount of defendants’ liability may not be known, defendants’ obligation to insure the risk in accordance with their respective policies was not altered by the assignment.”

Clearly, this case will pave the way for the transfer of “insurance rights” after the occurrence of events giving rise to coverage, without the need for insurer approval.

N.B.: The California Supreme Court just last week reached the same conclusion in a case involving asbestos claims. A post will follow on the specifics of that decision.

Private Consultants To Oversee NJ Cleanups

Governor Corzine signed Executive Order No. 140 on May 7, 2009, which will almost certainly shake up the regulatory scene in the Garden State.  Under the new bill, some 19,000 properties, encompassing everything from residential USTs to large industrial facilities, may now be supervised by contractors who are licensed by a new state board.  New Jersey’s new program is modeled after a similar program in Massachusetts, which has increased its cleanup efficiency since it began privatizing cleanups some years ago. Under the MA program, Licensed Site Professionals ("LSPs") are selected and regulated by the Board of Registration of Hazardous Waste Site Cleanup Professionals. Demands for an overhaul of the remediation program in New Jersey began in 2006 after mercury contamination was found at a child care center in Gloucester County.  (So much for the bright idea of housing a day care facility, Kiddie Kollege, in the former thermometer manufacturing plant!).  At the time, NJDEP officials cited staff cuts that hampered the ability of the agency to oversee cleanups and an increase in the average case load of NJDEP project managers.  Of course, not everyone is thrilled about the new law.  Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, believes the law will leave a "polluted legacy" throughout the state and "toxic time bombs" to be discovered by future generations.  But the real issue is how tough the new licensing board is likely to be in setting up the criteria for its LRSP’s and what disincentives will be put in place to discourage LRSP’s from cutting corners.  The New Jersey Sierra Club’s Press Release cautions that this law may have a transformative effect on how the government protects the public’s health.  Certainly, no one can reasonably dispute that the new legislation will be create an employment mini-boom among environmental consultants in New Jersey.  More importantly, the law should result in a re-focusing on polluted sites that have not been given adequate regulatory attention in the past.  Based upon the Massachusetts experience, the new law has the potential to be extremely beneficial for the environment and public health in New Jersey.