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Structure Building Corporation v. Abella

377 N.J. Super. 467, 873 A.2d 601 (App. Div. 2005)

ZONING; SLAPP SUITS—Under the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, persons who challenge governmental actions in court are immune from malicious use of process suits even if their motives are allegedly improper or their claims are baseless.

A developer sued a group of homeowners who unsuccessfully fought its efforts to obtain municipal planning board approval for a subdivision of its property into six residential lots. The developer claimed that the homeowners’ lawsuits were ill-motivated, baseless, and improper. It sued for malicious use of process and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage. The lower court granted the homeowners’ motion for summary judgement, dismissing the complaint. In New Jersey, there is an absolute right to participate in hearings and oppose zoning applications that affect the objector’s property. The law requires that neighboring property owners be given notice and an opportunity to participate in the hearing process. Further, neighbors who are dissatisfied with a zoning board’s decision have an absolute right to appeal the decision. New Jersey courts have developed the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, which affords immunity to those who challenge governmental actions in court. The courts feared that if threatened with lawsuits, individuals who would otherwise challenge governmental actions would be deterred from pursuing their claims. The lower court found that under the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, the developer could not sue the homeowners for challenging the zoning board decision. The Appellate Division agreed. It rejected the developer’s argument that the doctrine should not apply because the homeowners’ motives were allegedly improper or that their claims were allegedly baseless.

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