Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

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In 2005, Evangelos Dimitrakopoulos retained the law firm of Borrus, Goldin, Foley, Vignuolo, Hyman and Stahl, P.C. ("Borrus firm"), for help with a business dispute with Steven Eleftheriou. Represented by the Borrus firm, Dimitrakopoulos and his wife filed a complaint against Eleftheriou and his wife. For undisclosed reasons, the Borrus firm filed a motion to withdraw as counsel shortly after it was retained. Days later, the Borrus firm filed a complaint against Dimitrakopoulos, alleging that its former client owed it $93,811.95 in fees for legal services and that payment had been demanded and not made. Dimitrakopoulos, acting pro se, filed an answer to the collection complaint but filed no counterclaim or third-party claim. In a proceeding before an arbitrator six months after the collection action was filed, the Dimitrakopouloses and the Eleftherious settled their dispute. In light of the settlement, the arbitrator did not issue an award. Months later, the court in the collection matter granted the Borrus firm’s unopposed motion for a final judgment by default in the amount of $121,947.99 for legal services, interest, attorneys’ fees, and court costs. Dimitrakopoulos did not appeal. A total of sixteen months elapsed between the filing of the Borrus firm’s collection action and the entry of the default judgment in that action. After the resolution of the business dispute between the Dimitrakopouloses and the Eleftherious, the collection action remained pending for an additional ten months. On September 10, 2015, approximately three years after the entry of judgment in the collection action, the Dimitrakopouloses sued the Borrus firm and the principal attorneys who worked on their matter for legal malpractice. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint based on the "entire controversy" doctrine and the doctrine of waiver. The Dimitrakopouloses argued that the damages claimed in the malpractice action were known to them as of September 6, 2011, the day that they settled their dispute with the Eleftherious. The trial court concluded that the Dimitrakopouloses could have asserted their malpractice claim in the collection matter. An Appellate Division panel affirmed that judgment and stated that under Olds v. Donnelly, 150 N.J. 424 (1997), legal malpractice claims were exempt from the entire controversy doctrine to the extent that they need not be asserted in the underlying action. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the collection action at issue in this matter was not an “underlying action” as that term was used in Olds, and that the entire controversy doctrine could bar the claim. The record of this appeal, however, was inadequate for an application of the equitable rules that governed here. The Court therefore reversed the Appellate Division, and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Dimitrakopoulos v. Borrus, Goldin, Foley, Vignuolo, Hyman and Stahl, P.C." on Justia Law

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In this appeal, plaintiffs, an individual and his limited liability towing company, entered into a contract for the purchase of a customized medium-duty 4x4 truck with autoloader tow unit. Ultimately, the truck did not perform as expected and plaintiffs filed suit. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review centered on whether determine whether New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act (CFA or the Act) covered the transaction as a sale of “merchandise.” The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division that the trial court took too narrow an approach in assessing what constituted "merchandise" under the remedial CFA. The customized tow truck and rig fit within the CFA’s expansive definition of “merchandise” and, therefore, plaintiff’s CFA claim should not have foundered based on an application of that term. Furthermore, the Court agreed with the appellate panel’s remand to the trial court for a determination of whether defendants’ other bases for seeking summary judgment were meritorious. View "All The Way Towing, LLC v. Bucks County International, Inc." on Justia Law

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This appeal stemmed from plaintiff Lucia Serico’s motion for attorney’s fees and other litigation expenses pursuant to Rule 4:58 after a jury trial on medical malpractice claims against Robert Rothberg, M.D. At issue was whether Serico could collect attorney’s fees from Rothberg despite entering into a “high-low agreement” that limited the amount she could recover at trial to $1,000,000. Based on the expressed intent of the parties and the context of the agreement, the New Jersey Supreme Court found the agreement set $1,000,000 as the maximum recovery. Therefore, Serico could not seek additional litigation expenses allowed by Rule 4:58. View "Serico v. Rothberg" on Justia Law

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This appeal arose out of a discovery dispute in a medical malpractice action involving a hospital’s and its staff’s care of a patient. The parties disagreed over the boundaries of privileged material under the Patient Safety Act (PSA), N.J.S.A. 26:2H-12.23 to -12.25c, and plaintiff’s ability to receive responsive discovery in order to prepare her action. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the appellate panel’s order shielding the redacted document at issue from discovery because the PSA’s self-critical-analysis privilege prevents its disclosure. The Court also affirmed the determination that, when reviewing a discovery dispute such as this, a trial court should not be determining whether a reportable event under the PSA has occurred. The Court reversed the judgment to the extent it ended defendants’ discovery obligation with respect to this dispute, finding that defendants had an unmet discovery duty under Rule 4:17-4(d) that had to be addressed. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Brugaletta v. Garcia" on Justia Law

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In this case, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was whether the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (Commission) appropriately issued fines and suspensions without holding hearings. The Commission sent notices of proposed suspension to the dealers. The notice also informed the dealers of their right to request a hearing. Each dealer acted pro se and requested a hearing in writing. Each provided explanations for the alleged violations but did not deny the allegations. The Commission denied the requests for hearings and issued an order of suspension/final administrative decision letter to each dealer. The Commission ruled that each dealer had “failed to identify any disputed material fact(s), legal issue(s) and/or specific mitigating circumstances to be resolved at a hearing,” and interpreted the dealers’ responses as admissions. The Appellate Division panel consolidated the appeals and affirmed the Commission’s imposition of suspensions and fines, determining that the Commission could decide cases “without a trial-type hearing when there are no disputed adjudicative facts.” The panel found that the fines challenged by the dealers were authorized by N.J.S.A. 39:10-20, and the Commission could impose fines under the statute on a case-by-case basis. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that if the reasons given by the dealers presented a colorable dispute of facts or at least the presence of mitigating evidence, the Commission was required to provide an in-person hearing pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:10-20. "An in-person hearing must be held prior to a license suspension or revocation when the target of the enforcement action requests it." View "Allstars Auto Group, Inc. v. New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission" on Justia Law

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In January 2014, a General Order was issued under the authority of the Chief of the Barnegat Township Police Department that applied only to that department. The Order instructed officers to record by MVR several categories of incidents. It was undisputed that the MVR recordings at the center of this appeal were made in compliance with the Order. The MVR recordings at issue documented an incident in which police officers pursued and arrested a driver who had allegedly eluded an officer attempting a traffic stop. One officer’s decision to deploy a police dog during the arrest led to internal investigations and criminal charges against the officer. Approximately four months after the driver’s arrest, plaintiff John Paff sought access to the MVR recordings under OPRA and the common law. The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office (OCPO) opposed disclosure. Plaintiff filed a verified complaint and order to show cause, seeking access to the MVR recordings on the basis of OPRA and the common-law right of access. The trial court ordered disclosure of the MVR recordings. A divided Appellate Division panel affirmed the trial court’s determination. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division panel, concurring with the panel’s dissenting judge that the MVR recordings were not “required by law” within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1.1, that they constituted criminal investigatory records under that provision, and that they were therefore not subject to disclosure under OPRA. The Supreme Court remanded the matter to the trial court for consideration of plaintiff’s claim of a common-law right of access to the MVR recordings. View "Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutors Office" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review centered on whether a tax lienholder has standing to challenge a planning board’s approval of a land use application for a neighboring property. The Court concluded that, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55D-4, a tax lienholder who can show that its “right to use, acquire or enjoy property is or may be affected” if the application is granted is an interested party, and therefore may have standing to challenge a planning board’s approval of a land use application. View "Cherokee LCP Land, LLC v. City of Linden Planning Board" on Justia Law

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Accutane was a prescription medication developed by defendants and approved by the FDA to treat recalcitrant nodular acne. Accutane’s alleged role as a cause of gastrointestinal disease ultimately resulted in a series of lawsuits against defendants. The case before the New Jersey Supreme Court here involved over two thousand plaintiffs who alleged they developed Crohn’s disease as a result of taking Accutane. In the years since many earlier Accutane cases were decided, epidemiological studies were published, all of which concluded that Accutane was not causally associated with the development of Crohn’s disease. Defendants filed a motion seeking a hearing on the association between Accutane and Crohn’s disease. The issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s consideration reduced to the admissibility of scientific evidence under the New Jersey Rules of Evidence. Plaintiffs claimed that a causal connection existed between Accutane and Crohn’s disease. The Supreme Court discerned little distinction between “Daubert’s” principles regarding expert testimony and New Jersey’s, and Daubert’s factors for assessing the reliability of expert testimony “will aid New Jersey trial courts in their role as the gatekeeper of scientific expert testimony in civil cases.” The Court reconciled the standard under N.J.R.E. 702, and relatedly N.J.R.E. 703, with the federal Daubert standard to incorporate its factors for civil cases. Here, the trial court properly excluded plaintiffs’ experts’ testimony. Moreover, the Court reaffirmed that the abuse of discretion standard must be applied by an appellate court assessing whether a trial court has properly admitted or excluded expert scientific testimony in a civil case. In this matter, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its evidential ruling and, therefore, the Appellate Division erred in reversing the trial court’s exclusion of the testimony of plaintiffs’ experts. View "In re: Accutane Litigation" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Montclair State University (MSU) has attempted to create a third egress from its campus onto a county road. MSU consulted with both the County of Passaic, New Jersey (County) and the City of Clifton (City), ultimately satisfying most of their concerns about the project. When the County failed to respond to MSU’s permit applications, MSU filed this action, seeking a judgment declaring that no permit or local approval was required, or alternatively, an order compelling the County to issue all necessary permits. The trial court denied relief sought. Relying on Rutgers v. Piluso, 60 N.J. 142 (1972), the court reasoned that the parties had to exchange updated traffic studies, consult further, and appear before the local planning boards. Although MSU agreed to make more changes to its plan, the impasse remained. The principal point of contention was the design speed of the campus roadway, which the County and City claimed was unsafe. MSU declined to make the change proposed by the County and the City, relying on its experts’ conclusion that the road’s planned design speed and posted speed would be safe, and that the alternative design was unsafe. The matter returned to the trial court, which dismissed MSU’s complaint because MSU had not returned to the local planning boards to develop the record further. In reversing the trial court, the Appellate Division held MSU enjoyed a limited immunity but that Rutgers controlled here and prohibits MSU from exercising its power in an “unreasonable fashion.” The panel remanded the matter, instructing that the trial court determine whether MSU had adequately and reasonably consulted with the County and City. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that in circumstances such as were presented here, a judicial finding that the cited public safety concern has been reasonably addressed was a necessary additional requirement before a court could either compel local regulatory action or grant declaratory relief that the planned action is exempt from land use regulation. The appellate court did not specify what record warranted such a finding in every case. “Rather, the trial court should determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether it could make such a finding via a summary proceeding or whether a more fulsome proceeding is necessary.” View "Montclair State University v. County of Passaic" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case were: (1) the extent of Kean University’s (Kean) notice obligations as a public body under the Open Public Meetings Act (the OPMA or the Act), and whether the notice for the personnel exception established in Rice v. Union County Regional High School Board of Education, 155 N.J. Super. 64, 73 (App. Div. 1977) (the Rice notice) applied here; (2) timing parameters for the release of minutes of meetings; and (3) the appropriate remedy if the OPMA was violated in the latter respect in this matter. Kean’s Board of Trustees (the Board), as a public body, is required to annually establish and publish a schedule of its regular meetings. Plaintiff Valera Hascup received a letter from the University President informing her that he would not nominate her for reappointment at the Board’s meeting scheduled for December 6, 2014. On November 29, 2014, the Board published a tentative agenda for the December meeting on the Kean University website, indicating that the Board intended to discuss faculty reappointments during the public meeting. It did not send a Rice notice. On December 18, 2014, co-plaintiff James Castiglione, a Kean professor and President of the Kean Federation of Teachers (KFT), filed an Open Public Records Act request seeking the minutes from the closed sessions of the September 15 and December 6, 2014 meetings. The Appellate Division affirmed the determination that the Board did not make the meeting minutes promptly available, but reversed and vacated a permanent injunction. The New Jersey Supreme Court found there was no obligation to send Rice notices here, where the Board determined from the start to conduct its discussion about faculty reappointments in public session. With respect to the release of meeting minutes, the delay that occurred was unreasonable no matter the excuses advanced by the Board, but the Court modified the Appellate Division’s holding requiring the Board to set a regular meeting schedule. View "Kean Federation of Teachers v. Morell" on Justia Law