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New Jersey State League of Master Plumbers, Inc. v. New Jersey Natural Gas Company

A-1182-09T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

PLUMBERS — New Jersey’s Plumbing Law may only be enforced by the State Board of Master Plumbers, the Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, and the Attorney General.

A utility company provided natural gas to certain areas of New Jersey and also provided plumbing related services to its natural gas customers. A New Jersey trade association of licensed master plumbers filed suit against the utility, alleging the utility was engaging in unauthorized plumbing activities in violation of the Plumbing Law, and had been circulating improper plumbing advertisements in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA). The utility moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, arguing the association lacked standing to bring its lawsuit.

The lower court granted the motion, finding there is no private cause of action to enforce the provisions of the Plumbing Law because the New Jersey Legislature conferred enforcement power solely on the State Board of Master Plumbers, the Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, and the Attorney General. The court also concluded that the association could not sue under the CFA because it could not demonstrate an ascertainable loss under that Act.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, holding that the Plumbing Law established a comprehensive scheme for the regulation of plumbing in New Jersey. The Law allocated its enforcement provisions to the Uniform Enforcement Act (UEA), which specifically authorizes only public entities to take enforcement action. Available remedies include revocation or suspension of licenses, orders to cease and desist from engaging in unlicensed or improper activities, and the imposition of fines and related costs. The Court held that neither the UEA nor the Plumbing Law specifically provides for, nor implies, a private enforcement action. The Court said the Plumbing Law’s purpose is to protect members of the public from unskilled practitioners and unscrupulous practices, rather than to limit competition for the benefit of plumbing licensees. Additionally, the Court said the UEA calls for a uniform approach to investigation and enforcement, and allowing a private cause of action would be inconsistent with that objective.

The Court also held that the association failed to prove a claim for relief under the CFA as it demonstrated no transaction with the utility that resulted in any ascertainable loss of money or property to its members. Rather, the association claimed theoretical losses through unfair competition, rather than from any consumer transaction to which they were a party.

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