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Coit v. Coccoli

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 8, 2018

Janet L. Coit, in her capacity as Director of the Department of Environmental Management, et al.
Vincent Coccoli, d/b/a Millville Associates, Inc., et al.

          Providence County Superior Court No. PC 12-2481 Patricia A. Hurst Associate Justice

          For Plaintiffs: Gregory S. Schultz, Esq. Christina Anne Hoefsmit, Esq.

          For Defendants: Vincent Coccoli, Pro Se Patrick T. Conley, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice

         This case came before the Supreme Court on February 7, 2018, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised on appeal should not be summarily decided. The plaintiffs, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the State of Rhode Island, appeal from the trial justice's decision granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants, Vincent Coccoli, doing business as Millville Associates, Inc. (Coccoli or Millville), and Patrick Conley, as Trustee of the Pearl Trust (Conley or the Pearl Trust) (collectively defendants). The DEM also appeals from the denial of its motion to file a second amended complaint. The DEM argues that the hearing justice erred as a matter of law when she concluded that an administrative penalty could not be enforced through an injunctive proceeding. After hearing the arguments of counsel and examining the memoranda submitted by the parties, we are of the opinion that cause has not been shown and that this case should be decided without further briefing or argument. We dismiss the appeal because it is not properly before this Court.

          Facts and Travel

         Millville and the Pearl Trust were the owners of real property located on Pearl Avenue in North Providence, Rhode Island (the Pearl Avenue property).[1] On October 25, 2002, DEM issued a letter of responsibility addressed to the Pearl Trust, requesting that the Pearl Trust investigate the release of hazardous materials in the form of chlorinated volatile organic compounds on the Pearl Avenue property. Thereafter, the contamination was properly remediated. Subsequently, the property abutting the Pearl Avenue property, located at 18 Thelma Avenue (the abutting property), was reported to have excessive chlorinated volatile organic compounds detected in the groundwater. The DEM concluded that the Pearl Avenue property was the probable source of the contamination, and it notified Millville that it was responsible for the remediation of the contamination.

         On October 10, 2006, DEM issued an interim letter of compliance to Millville, acknowledging that the soils on the Pearl Avenue property had been brought into compliance, but that Millville remained responsible for the remediation of the abutting property. There was no action after this notification.

         On December 22, 2006, DEM issued a letter of noncompliance to Millville, for failure to address the contamination on the abutting property. The letter of noncompliance required Millville to submit a remedial action work plan to DEM by February 1, 2007. Millville submitted a remedial action work plan regarding the abutting property, and DEM issued an order of approval that required Millville to initiate remediation on or before February 28, 2007. There was no action to commence remedial efforts by the required deadline. Thereafter, DEM issued a notice of intent to enforce addressed to Millville and the Pearl Trust for the failure to remediate the abutting property. The notice also required Millville and the Pearl Trust to begin remediation on or before July 15, 2007.

         Several years later, in 2010, DEM issued a notice of violation (NOV) against defendants for failure to comply with the remediation order for the abutting property.[2] The NOV ordered defendants to begin installation and operation of the remedial plan within thirty days of receipt of the NOV, and assessed a $45, 000 administrative penalty. The notice further informed defendants of their right to request an administrative hearing within twenty days of the notice. The defendants neither responded to the NOV nor requested an administrative hearing.

         Time passed. In 2012, DEM commenced the present action against defendants, seeking injunctive relief to require defendants to remediate.[3] The DEM also sought enforcement of the administrative penalty, arguing that its authority to do so arose from G.L. 1956 § 42-17.1-2(21)(v).[4]

         On July 29, 2013, Coccoli filed a motion to dismiss and contended that he was not an individual owner of the Pearl Avenue property and that he did not receive proper notice of the NOV. Similarly, Conley moved for summary judgment, asserting that the Pearl Trust was extinguished at the time the NOV was issued and that he could not be held personally liable for the inaction of the Pearl Trust. The DEM filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, contending that, as a matter of law, it was entitled to enforce the NOV, which it contended became enforceable when defendants failed to timely request an administrative hearing.

         More time passed, as did the contamination. In 2015, the levels of contamination located on the abutting property had naturally deteriorated to acceptable levels. In turn, DEM released defendants from the remediation requirement, but continued to seek enforcement of the $45, 000 administrative penalty. In response, defendants filed a joint motion for summary judgment, arguing that the release of the remediation requirement also ...

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