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D.R. Horton, Inc.-NJ v. New Jersey Dept. of Environmental Protection

383 N.J. Super. 405, 891 A.2d 1253 (App. Div. 2006)

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION; HEARINGS; APPEALS—The doctrine of substantial compliance applies to appeal requests following receipt of a violation notice and sending a request by mail four days ahead of the deadline is acceptable even if the request is received two days after the deadline.

A property owner received a violation notice from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP). The statute required the owner to file its appeal within twenty days after it received the initial violation notice from NJDEP. The owner sent its appeal request by first class mail, four days before the expiration of the twenty-day deadline. The United States Postal Service failed to deliver it on time, and the appeal notice was received two days after the deadline. NJDEP denied the owner’s request for an appeal hearing. It claimed that the request was not filed timely and relied on case law that held that a “statutory time limitation for requesting an adjudicatory hearing is mandatory and jurisdictional” and not subject to enlargement. The Court disagreed. It noted that New Jersey courts have recognized that even strict statutes of limitation have some flexibility and can be extended in appropriate circumstances. The Court found that the doctrine of substantial compliance applies to requests for adjudicatory hearings. It noted that the purpose for setting a deadline for hearings is to give finality to an agency decision by requiring a request to be filed within a certain time frame. It also noted that finality is not undermined by relaxing the rules in appropriate circumstances, when the owner substantially complied with the rules and took reasonable steps to meet the deadline notwithstanding NJDEP’s failure to receive the hearing request on time. In order to establish substantial compliance, the owner needed to show: (a) lack of prejudice to NJDEP; (b) a series of steps the owner took to comply with the deadline; (c) general compliance with the purpose of the statute; (d) reasonable notice; and (d) a reasonable explanation why the owner did not comply with the deadline. The Court found that NJDEP’s receipt of the appeal request two days late was not prejudicial and did not disturb the statutory purpose to have appeal request filed promptly. The Court also found that the owner substantially complied when it sent the hearing request four days prior to the deadline. It noted that is was reasonable to use the United States Postal Service. It also noted that most of the time mail is delivered within four days after mailing. Therefore, the owner, who sent the notice by mail far enough in advance of the deadline that it would reasonably reach its destination on time, substantially complied with the statute and its request for a hearing should have been granted.

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