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Haddonbrook Associates v. General Electric Company

2009 WL 704380 (U.S. Dist. Ct. D. N.J. 2009) (Unpublished)

ENVIRONMENTAL ACCESS — Although a court order requiring a property owner to allow access to a neighbor for the purpose of making an environmental investigation on the owner’s land may describe the access as “temporary,” the owner cannot summarily bar its neighbor from access even though many years have passed because only a court can make a determination as to whether the time elapsed has gone beyond “temporary.”

A landowner was named by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as one of a number of potentially responsible parties (PRPs) with respect to environmental clean-up activities associated with a commercial landfill site. The DEP and the PRPs signed an Administrative Consent Order which required the PRPs to undertake certain investigatory and remedial activities at the site. The DEP and the PRPs also agreed on a remediation work plan to implement the terms of the consent order. Under the terms of the work plan, the PRPs were directed to conduct activities outside of the boundaries of the landfill site, including the installation of “temporary” well points and possibly groundwater monitoring wells. The adjacent owner refused the PRPs access to its property. They sued the adjacent owner.

The Chancery Division issued an order directing the adjacent owner to grant reasonable, temporary access to the property to perform the activities necessary to comply with the DEP’s order. Thereafter, the PRPs installed a temporary well point and monitoring wells and took multiple groundwater samples from the adjacent property. Nearly eleven years later, the managing partner of the adjacent owner asked the landowner if it could relocate its monitoring wells. The landowner spoke to the DEP about the adjacent owner’s request and was told that the DEP could consider allowing the PRPs to move the well if the adjacent owner had an approved development plan with the municipality. The adjacent owner never obtained a development plan. The adjacent owner subsequently sent a letter to the landowner placing it on notice that the landowner was no longer permitted to enter onto the adjacent owner’s property under any circumstances. The letter went on to state that the lower court’s order is 12 years old and granted only “temporary access” to the site. The adjacent owner claimed that the PRPs deliberately and intentionally exceeded the temporary nature of the order and unjustly trespassed on its property. The notice required the PRPs to immediately remove the monitoring wells and equipment. The landowner then received permission from the DEP to access the adjacent site to decommission the wells. The adjacent owner refused to grant the landowner access to its premises to decommission the wells.

The adjacent owner sued the landowner in New Jersey state court. The landowner moved the matter to the United States District Court. The Court’s decision in the present matter solely dealt with the landowner’s summary judgment motion to dismiss the adjacent owner’s claim that it trespassed onto the adjacent owner’s property. The Court ruled in favor of the landowner. The Court held that in order to assert a claim for trespass under New Jersey common law, there must be an “unauthorized” entry onto the property of another. The Court stated that a person cannot be liable for trespass if acting pursuant to and within the scope of a valid court order. It determined that it was clear from the record that the landowner was authorized to enter onto the adjacent property pursuant to a court order. The Court found that it was not up to the adjacent owner to determine on its own when the temporary court order expired. If the adjacent owner had questions about the temporary scope of the order or if it sought to be relieved from its terms, it was free to petition the court for relief or clarification. Here, it did not avail itself of either option. Thus, the Court held that the adjacent owner’s unilateral interpretation of the order did not transform court-authorized access into a trespass. Further, the Court found that even if the present lawsuit could be characterized as a challenge to the validity to the state court’s order, it lacked jurisdiction to hear the matter. The Court cited the Rooker-Feldman doctrine as preventing lower federal courts from exercising jurisdiction over cases brought by parties challenging state court judgments rendered prior to the commencement of proceedings at a lower federal court. Finally, the Court dismissed the adjacent owner’s contention that the landowner failed to diligently attempt to decommission the wells as quickly as possible. It believed that such information, even if uncovered, would have no bearing on the Court’s determination as to whether the entry onto the adjacent property was “authorized.”

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