WHS Realty Company v. Town of Morristown

323 N.J. Super. 553, 733 A.2d 1206 (App. Div. 1999)
  • Opinion Date: July 27, 1999

MUNICIPALITIES; GARBAGE COLLECTION—A garbage collection ordinance that provided for service to condominium complexes, but not to similarly sized rental apartments, was found to violate due process and equal protection requirements.

This appeal deals with a challenge to a municipality’s garbage collection ordinance which provided free collection service to all residential dwellings of three or fewer units as well as to condominium developments when no more than fifty percent of the units are owned by one person or entity. Excluded from the ordinance were all multi-family dwellings of four or more units. The owner of a garden apartment complex of 140 units did not receive collection services under this ordinance and filed a complaint claiming that the ordinance violated its right to due process and equal protection under the United States and New Jersey Constitutions. It demanded the same garbage collection service be provided to all other residents and made a claim for compensatory damages, attorneys’ fees, interest, and costs of suit under 42 U.S.C. Sections 1983 and 1988. Initially, the lower court concluded that there was no rational basis for the municipality to have excluded apartment complexes from the coverage of the ordinance. A divided panel of the Appellate Division affirmed, but the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, essentially because it felt that a plenary hearing was necessary to determine whether the municipality’s ordinance was rationally related to a legitimate state interest. After a four-day hearing, the lower court reaffirmed its prior determination that the ordinance was unconstitutional. If a legislative classification “neither burdens a fundamental right nor targets a suspect class,” a court will uphold the constitutionality of the legislation “so long as it bears a rational relation to some legitimate end.” A municipal ordinance is accorded the same presumption of constitutionality as all legislation. The parties agreed that the ordinance did not implicate a suspect class or fundamental right. Therefore, the property owner had the burden of demonstrating that classification by the ordinance lacked a rational basis. Although a municipality need not provide for garbage removal, once such a service is provided, “there can be no invidious discrimination” in limiting the service to certain classifications. Service must be available to all persons in like circumstances upon the same terms and conditions. The municipality defended its ordinance with a claim that it was rationally related to fostering home ownership, a legitimate governmental objective. In support of its argument, the municipality had its mayor testify as to his belief that the garbage collection ordinance “promote[s] the concept of ownership” because it provided a financial incentive to purchase a home within the community. The mayor also cited the “psychological aspect” of free garbage collection, asserting that when a resident owns his or her own home, he or she “expect[s] garbage pick up,” thereby providing “uniformity” which promotes “cleanliness for the neighborhood.” The municipality also pointed to several provisions of its Master Plan in support of its policy of fostering home ownership. The apartment complex owner offered testimony that its own planner could find no document or study supporting the notion that free garbage collection fosters home ownership. After reviewing the evidence, the lower court found that the facts did not support the municipality’s claim that the ordinance fostered home ownership. It observed that as a “conceptual matter,” once a municipality provides garbage collection to residential dwellings, there is no rational basis to distinguish one residence from another. The Appellate Division agreed with the lower court. With respect to the Master Plan, the Court pointed out that it called for “a greater diversity of housing types to meet ... [the] needs of a wide range of incomes and age levels.” This meant that private home ownership was not the central focus of the Master Plan. The municipality also advanced the fact that condominiums are taxed differently than apartment units as a rational basis for its ordinance. In essence, the municipality submitted evidence that a condominium’s assessment may be two or three times greater than a comparable apartment complex based merely on the form of ownership. The Appellate Division found that the lower court properly rejected this rationale. The proofs established that apartment complexes provided a positive tax ratable for the municipality. In fact, it appeared that they absorbed part of the cost of garbage collection service provided to other property owners. Quite telling was that the Court could find not a single case supporting the proposition that once a municipality decides to provide a municipal service to condominiums, it may exclude apartment complexes simply because the assessment methodology for apartment and condominium complexes is different. The Court also rejected the proposition that the municipality’s garbage collection ordinance was rationally related to the legitimate state interest of “efficient sanitation.”

With respect to the claim for damages and counsel fees under Section 1983 and 1988, the lower court observed that “the reality is” that the validity of the ordinance was a “fuzzy question.” It also noted that apartment complexes historically have been treated differently than other residential units and therefore a court should not “penalize” a municipality and its taxpayers for the law’s failure to “evolve as quickly as some of us would like to see the evolution take place.” A municipality is subject to suit under Section 1983 when a constitutional injury is inflicted by the execution of local government, policy or custom. Clearly, the ordinance was the “official policy or custom” of the municipality, and therefore it was subject to an action under Section 1983. Moreover, the United States Supreme Court has held that a “municipality may not assert the good faith of its officers or agents as a defense to liability under 1983.” Consequently, the Court having found the municipal garbage collection ordinance unconstitutional, reinstated the apartment complex owner’s Section 1983 claim and remanded it to the lower court for determination as to whether the owner had a viable claim for damages and counsel fees after consideration of any defenses that the municipality might raise.