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Mannington Mills, Inc. v. Shinn

ELR Citation: 25 ELR 21078
Nos. No. 94-736 (JEI), 877 F. Supp. 921/(D.N.J., 02/28/1995)

The court holds that a state environmental department did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution by considering a vinyl flooring manufacturer's ability to pay for cleaning up environmental contamination at its Mannington Township, New Jersey, facility in designating the site for immediate remedial action. The court first holds that the state mooted the manufacturer's request for an injunction preventing the state from entering the property, because the state withdrew for substantive review the remedial priority system it used for scoring the manufacturer's site when it replaced that system. The manufacturer does not seek to enjoin the state from re-listing the site as a priority, but the court holds that it cannot determine whether the new scoring system is arbitrary and capricious until the state promulgates it. The court also holds moot the manufacturer's requests for a declaration that the state's past and present actions violated its rights and an injunction prohibiting further violations, because until the state implements the new site remediation program, it is impossible to anticipate whether any state action under the program will violate constitutional mandates.

Addressing the manufacturer's claims for retrospective relief, the court holds that the manufacturer may maintain claims for money damages against the state and the state officials in their individual capacities for allegedly unlawful actions the state has taken. Mere discontinuance of the official action at issue will not cure any damage that has occurred. Eleventh Amendment immunity insulates states from damage claims in federal courts, but does not protect state officials from suits for damages agaisnt them in their individual capacities.

The court alternatively holds that it may abstain from deciding the manufacturer's claims for prospective relief under the abstention doctrine set forth in Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943), but that the doctrine does not provide grounds to abstain from addressing the manufacturer's damages claim. Under the Burford doctrine, a court should abstain where the exercise of federal review would disrupt state efforts to establish a coherent policy regarding substantial public concerns. The court holds that the state has a strong interest in regulating hazardous waste because it is an issue of substantial public concern. And given that the state is currently reformulating the system for prioritizing hazardous sites, granting the requested prospective relief on a regulatory scheme that no longer exists would unduly interfere with the state's process of crafting and promulgating the new system.

The court holds that abstaining under the Burford doctrine from reviewing the manufacturer's damages claims is inappropriate, because assessing damages for past violations of the manufacturer's constitutional rights would not unduly interfere with the ongoing regulatory process. The court further holds that the abstention doctrine set forth in Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941), does not provide grounds for refusing to consider these claims, because the case does not involve resolving unsettled questions of state law, but rather requires the court to determine whether the state's manner of prioritizing contaminated sites violated the manufacturer's constitutional rights.

Addressing the manufacturer's claims for damages against the state officials in their individual capacities, the court dismisses the individual damage claims against the commissioner of the state environmental department because he was joined only in his official capacity to obtain prospective relief. The complaint does not mention the commissioner's name and he apparently became commissioner only shortly before the manufacturer filed the complaint. The court next holds that individual state officials are entitled to qualified immunity for their actions related to designating the facility as a priority site for remedial action, because no reasonable official would believe that the conduct at issue in this case would violate the manufacturer's constitutional rights. The court holds that the officials did not violate the manufacturer's right to procedural due process because they did not deprive the manufacturer of a liberty or property interest that would require them to provide the manufacturer a hearing. Listing the facility as a priority site is not a deprivation of a constitutionally protected interest. Further, a mere listing that does not affect the legal rights, duties, obligations, privileges, benefits or other legal relations of specific parties does not trigger the protections of the state's Administrative Procedures Act. The court holds that the state officials did not violate the manufacturer's right to substantive due process, because the right to be free from regulatory ineptitude is not a fundamental right to which heightened scrutiny could apply. The court holds that by focusing at least in part on the manufacturer's ability to pay for the remediation, the state officials did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Wealth-based classifications do not implicate a suspect class under equal protection jurisprudence and thus are subject only to rational basis review. The court holds that the state's consideration of wealth in prioritizing hazardous waste sites could be rationally related to the state's legitimate interest in protecting the environment, because the government has some legitimate interest in targeting sites owned by those able to afford remediation. And even if the court could construe the state officials' actions as violating the manufacturer's constitutional rights, it would dismiss the damages claims because these rights are not clearly established.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Peter M. Dolinger
Five Greentree Ctr., N. Tower
Rt. 73, Lincoln Dr. W., Ste. 200, Marlton NJ 08053

Counsel for Defendants
Deborah T. Poritz, Attorney General
Attorney General's Office
R.J.H. Justice Complex
25 Market St., CN 080, Trenton NJ 08625
(609) 292-4925