Parties objecting to development projects have traditionally been immunized from liability for common law torts, such as malicious prosecution, abuse of process and tortious interference. This immunity, grounded in the well-recognized Noerr-Pennington doctrine, affords immunity to those who petition the government for redress. (See Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, Inc. 365 U.S. 127 (1961); United Mine Workers of America v. Pennington, 381 U.S. 657 (1965) (holding that parties seeking relief from the government are generally afforded immunity unless such actions are objectively baseless).
While the immunity afforded objectors has been a difficult one to breach, recent decisions suggest that actions brought against these objectors require careful review of the facts and underlying circumstances before they can be summarily dismissed. In order to overcome Noerr-Pennington immunity, a litigant must satisfy a two-prong test: First, proof must be established that the actions of the objector were “objectively baseless,” meaning no reasonable litigant could realistically expect success on the merits of its claims. Second, proofs must also establish that the conduct in question was brought with the specific intent to further wrongful conduct through the use of the governmental process – as opposed to the outcome of that process. Importantly, the second prong is only considered if the challenged litigation is first found to be objectively meritless.
Recently, however, meeting the first prong has been made easier by our court’s consideration of an objector’s track record and the presence of other repeated failed filings. (See Main Street at Woolwich, LLC v. Ammons Supermarket, Inc. 451 N.J. Super. 135 (App. Div. 2017). In Main Street, the court relied upon a Third Circuit decision in holding that the trial court failed to properly consider the defendant’s alleged pattern of sham litigation. Hanover 3201 Realty, LLC v. Village Supermarkets, Inc. 806 F.3d 162, 180 (3rd Cir. 2015), cert. denied __ U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 2451 (2016). By demonstrating that an objector has engaged in a series of unsuccessful administrative and/or court challenges, developers can establish that this activity represents a pattern of utilizing the process to serve the anticompetitive purpose of injuring market rivals. Under such circumstances, a court could very well conclude that the claims of such objectors were not brought to redress any actual grievances, but rather to promote delay and cause injury. Accordingly, this broad immunity can be lost where the conduct at issue is merely intended to interfere directly with the business relationships of a competitor.
As a consequence, before filing any action seeking government redress, a putative objector, much like any other litigant, should carefully evaluate the bases for its objections with a legal professional to ensure that they are both grounded in fact as well as supported by sound legal underpinnings. To do otherwise is to invite abuse of process type claims that now have a much greater likelihood of success. Reviewing any possible strategy that involves objecting to a rival’s application for development is now, more than ever, a critically important step to insulating the objector from exposure to counter-suits that were previously viewed as questionable nuisance type actions.