An “Attagirl” for Judge Chrystal in a Long-Running Mount Laurel Case

Cranford Development Associates v. Cranford Tp., 445 N.J. Super. 220 (App. Div. 2016).  This Mount Laurel litigation resulted in a builder’s remedy for construction of a 360-unit residential development in Cranford.  The Township and other defendant municipal agencies appealed, but the Appellate Division affirmed the ruling below.  Near the outset of the Appellate Division’s opinion, Judge Reisner, writing for the panel, said “Judge Lisa F. Chrystal issued a series of lengthy, comprehensive and correct opinions over the course of the litigation.”  Those opinions included a 106-page oral opinion granting the builders’ remedy.

Judge Reisner noted that the Appellate Division was required “to defer to the trial court’s factual findings so long as they are supported by sufficient credible evidence, and we owe particular deference to the judge’s evaluation of witness credibility.”  Legal interpretations, however, would be reviewed de novo.  Finding no merit in the appeal, or in a cross-appeal by plaintiffs, who complained of Judge Chrystal’s decision not to award them attorneys’ fees under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-2, the Appellate Division affirmed Judge Chrystal in all respects.

Cranford argued that plaintiffs had not engaged in good faith negotiations prior to filing their Mount Laurel suit, as is required for a builder’s remedy.  Judge Reisner carefully analyzed the facts and affirmed Judge Chrystal for the reasons that Judge Chrystal gave, finding Cranford’s contention “without sufficient merit to require further discussion,” citing the “that’s ridiculous” rule, Rule 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).  That was the first of several instances where Judge Reisner cited that rule against Cranford, indicating that the Township should have pared down its arguments and limited itself to a few of the most potentially persuasive ones.

Cranford next argued that plaintiffs were not entitled to a builder’s remedy because plaintiffs had not shown that their lawsuit was the “catalyst” for Cranford’s filing a new fair share housing plan.  Judge Reisner found that contention doubly erroneous.

First, there was no requirement that a Mount Laurel lawsuit be a catalyst for a change in the municipality’s position.  The panel found unpersuasive the two cases on which Cranford relied for the catalyst idea:  Toll Brothers v. West Windsor Tp., 173 N.J. 502 (2002), and Mt. Olive Complex v. Mt. Olive Tp., 356 N.J. Super. 500 (App. Div. 2003).

Second, the catalyst argument was a “red herring” on the facts.  A Special Master had found that Cranford’s revised fair share plan was “deficient in important respects,” so that Cranford “did not in fact bring itself into compliance before or during the litigation.”  Judge Chrystal credited the Special Master’s opinion, and the Appellate Division found no reason to disturb that ruling.  Thus, even if plaintiffs had to show that they were a catalyst for a revised share plan, there was no sufficient plan as to which plaintiffs could make such a showing.

Judge Reisner then rejected Cranford’s complaint that Judge Chrystal had erred in appointing a special hearing examiner to oversee final site plan approval.  “The court’s authority to appoint Special Masters in Mount Laurel cases is well established.”  Cranford had not objected to the appointment of the hearing examiner, and the Township’s hostility to affordable housing justified the appointment here.

Cranford next contended that because Judge Chrystal awarded a builder’s remedy for 360 units instead of 419 units, she must have found that plaintiffs’ site was unsuitable for the proposed development.  Judge Reisner found that argument to be “based on a distortion of the Special Master’s recommendations and the trial court’s decision,” since neither the Special Master nor Judge Chrystal, who adopted the Special Master’s view, had in fact found the property unsuitable.  The panel praised Judge Chrystal’s analysis of potential flooding issues raised by Cranford, and observed that it was perfectly appropriate for a judge to “mold the builder’s remedy by reducing the number of units allowed, based on appropriate planning considerations,” as Judge Chrystal did here.

The panel upheld Judge Chrystal on the cross-appeal too.  Plaintiffs had argued for attorneys’ fees under the Civil Rights Act, but Judge Reisner observed that plaintiffs suing under that statute must show that the Constitution or laws of New Jersey “conferred on them [plaintiffs] a substantive right” (emphasis by Judge Reisner), quoting Tumpson v. Farina, 218 N.J. 450 (2014).  The constitutional right vindicated by the Mount Laurel doctrine belongs to lower income citizens, not builders.  And builders have enough of a financial incentive to file suit by virtue of the possible builder’s remedy.

Finally, Judge Reisner said, the Legislature’s failure to include a fee-shifting provision in the Fair Housing Act, as it did in the Law Against Discrimination, which covers housing, showed that there was no intent to allow a fee award in this context.  Plaintiffs could not cite any cases in which a builder had been awarded fees in Mount Laurel litigation.

Being reversed by appellate courts is an occupational hazard for trial judges.  It must be very gratifying for a trial judge, especially in a lengthy, complex, and hotly-contested case, to see an emphatic affirmance that is studded with favorable references to her by name.