New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, et al., appellants, v. Anthony J. Segreto, respondent.
Argued—January 3, 2019
DECISION & ORDER
ORDERED that the order is reversed insofar as appealed from, on the law, with costs, that branch of the plaintiffs' cross motion which was for summary judgment on the issue of liability on the fourth cause of action in the amended complaint is granted, and the matter is remitted to the Supreme Court, Suffolk County, to determine the amount of statutory civil penalties to be imposed.
The defendant is the owner of real property located adjacent to a tidal inlet of the Great South Bay in the Town of Islip. In or around 2005, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (hereinafter the DEC) commenced an administrative proceeding against the defendant, alleging that he had engaged in certain activities on his property within a regulated adjacent area to a regulated tidal wetland, without the required permit from the DEC. The Commissioner of the DEC issued an administrative order dated February 1, 2008 (hereinafter the administrative order), finding that the defendant violated the Tidal Wetlands Act (ECL art 25) by clearing vegetation and placing fill in the subject area without a permit. The administrative order assessed a civil penalty of $20,000 against the defendant pursuant to ECL 71–2503 and directed him to submit a tidal wetlands restoration plan for approval.
In May 2014, the defendant moved, inter alia, for permission to secure and shore up his property and to reinstate the property to its pre-Superstorm Sandy condition. The plaintiffs cross-moved for summary judgment on the amended complaint. In the order appealed from, the Supreme Court denied the defendant's motion in its entirety and granted those branches of the plaintiffs' motion which were for summary judgment on their first and second causes of action in the amended complaint, which sought relief related to the defendant's failure to comply with the administrative order. However, as relevant to this appeal, the court denied that branch of the plaintiffs' cross motion which was for summary judgment on the issue of liability on the fourth cause of action. The court determined that the plaintiffs had “failed to demonstrate that ECL 71–2503 authorizes a civil penalty to be assessed other than by the commissioner.”
Initially, contrary to the Supreme Court's determination, the court was authorized to assess a civil penalty, and to award equitable relief, for violations of article 25 of the ECL. To interpret a statute, “[c]ourts must first look to a statute's ‘plain language, as that represents the most compelling evidence of the Legislature's intent’ ” (Feinman v. County of Nassau, 154 AD3d 739, 740, quoting Matter of Tompkins County Support Collections Unit v Chamberlin, 99 N.Y.2d 328, 335). While ECL 71–2503 authorizes the commissioner to assess a civil penalty for violations of ECL article 25, ECL 71–2505 explicitly authorizes the attorney general “on [her or] his own initiative,” to “prosecute persons who violate article twenty-five.” That section further provides, in pertinent part, that “the attorney general, on [her or] his own initiative or at the request of the commissioner, shall have the right to recover a civil penalty ․ for every violation of any provision of such article, and to seek equitable relief to restrain any violation or threatened violation of such article and to require the restoration of any affected tidal wetland or area immediately adjacent thereto.” Thus, the plain language of the statute reflects that the attorney general is authorized to seek civil penalties and equitable relief in state court in the absence of any prior administrative proceedings.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court should have granted that branch of the plaintiffs' cross motion which was for summary judgment on the issue of liability on the fourth cause of action in the amended complaint. Therefore, we remit the matter to the Supreme Court, Suffolk County, for further proceedings to determine the appropriate amount of the civil penalties to be imposed for the subject violations (see Matter of B. Manzo & Son v New York State Dept. of Envtl. Conservation, 285 A.D.2d at 505).
LEVENTHAL, J.P., ROMAN, CONNOLLY and BRATHWAITE NELSON, JJ., concur.
Clerk of the Court