Plaintiff is a certified radon measurement and mitigation business regulated by the Department of Environmental Protection ("DEP") and the largest radon measurement business in the State. While the DEP was pursuing a regulatory enforcement action against the company, the company filed suit against the DEP and several DEP officials in the Law Division, alleging improper conduct and violations of its constitutional, statutory, and common-law rights.
Defendant moved to dismiss the company's constitutional and civil rights claims, asserting their alleged conduct was shielded under principles of qualified immunity. The trial court partially denied the immunity motion and ordered the parties to proceed with discovery.
The panel concludes the trial court misapplied principles of qualified immunity and should have dismissed the corresponding counts of the complaint. The DEP did not violate "clearly established" equal protection and due process rights by pursuing a regulatory enforcement action against the company, and by directing that communications between the company and the agency be channeled through their respective attorneys while the contentious administrative litigation was ongoing. Among other things, the panel notes that a regulatory agency must retain the discretion to interact with private parties in a manner it deems most efficient and effective, so long as it responds to outside inquires within a reasonable time and in a reasonable manner. Discovery on these claims was unnecessary, as defendants have qualified immunity from suit, not just a final judgment. The matter is remanded to adjudicate other open counts of the complaint.
In a separate unpublished opinion issued today, the panel affirmed in part the findings of the DEP Commissioner and the two administrative law judges that the company committed various regulatory violations, and reversed and remanded those findings in part.