Justia Civil Procedure Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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Plaintiff Hamid Harris alleged that Donald Stabile, a Newark Police Department detective, falsely accused him of four armed robberies that were committed in Newark in January 2015, and unlawfully arrested him in connection with those robberies based on an improperly issued arrest warrant. After the charges against plaintiff were dismissed, he filed this action. Defendants the City of Newark, Detective Donald Stabile, and Police Officer Angel Romero following the trial court’s denial of their motion for summary judgment, contended the trial court erred in denying them qualified immunity as a defense to Harris’s claims brought under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA). Defendants contended the trial court’s order denying summary judgment was a legal determination and should therefore be deemed appealable as of right, in keeping with both New Jersey appellate practice and federal law. The trial court reasoned that because Stabile did not have probable cause to arrest plaintiff, and because Stabile’s belief that plaintiff committed the robberies was objectively unreasonable, defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. The Appellate Division ruled that “[t]he appeal is interlocutory as it is not from a final order” and dismissed defendants’ notice of appeal. The appellate court also denied defendants’ motion for leave to appeal. The New Jersey Supreme Court found the trial court’s order was a decision premised on factual findings as well as legal conclusions, not an exclusively legal determination. "In an NJCRA action, a defendant seeking to challenge a trial court’s order denying qualified immunity prior to final judgment must proceed by motion for leave to file an interlocutory appeal in accordance with Rules 2:2-4 and 2:5-6. View "Harris v. City of Newark, et al." on Justia Law

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In February 2019, an attorney made a complaint to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office on behalf of employees of the Elizabeth Police Department. The complaint alleged that Police Director James Cosgrove, the civilian head of the Department for more than two decades, used racist and sexist language to refer to employees on multiple occasions. In response, the Prosecutor’s Office conducted an internal affairs investigation. In April 2019, the Office sustained the complaints; ten days later, the Attorney General issued a public statement describing the investigation and its conclusion and calling upon Cosgrove to resign, which he did. In July 2019, plaintiff Richard Rivera filed a request for records with the Prosecutor’s Office based on New Jersey's OPRA and the common law. As relevant here, plaintiff asked for “all internal affairs reports regarding” Cosgrove. The Prosecutor’s Office denied the request on the ground that it was “exempt from disclosure under OPRA” and not subject to disclosure under the common law. The trial court concluded the internal affairs report should have been made available under OPRA. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the requested materials were not exempt as “personnel records” under OPRA, but that they could not be disclosed under OPRA on other grounds. Further, the Appellate Division rejected plaintiff’s common law claim, determining that defendant’s interest in preventing disclosure outweighed plaintiff’s right to the documents. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding the internal affairs report should have been disclosed, as the Attorney General conceded, but after the trial court reviewed it and redacts parts that raise legitimate confidentiality concerns. View "Rivera v. Union County Prosecutor's Office" on Justia Law

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In October 2017, an incarcerated woman filed a lawsuit against Cumberland County and several corrections officers, including Tyrone Ellis, alleging she had been forced to engage in non-consensual sex acts on a regular basis. Plaintiff Libertarians for Transparent Government (Libertarians) obtained minutes of the public meeting of the Board of the Police and Firemen’s Retirement System at which the Board considered Ellis’s application for special retirement. According to the minutes, the County originally sought to terminate Ellis, who had been charged with a disciplinary infraction. When he submitted his resignation, the County warned that it intended to continue to prosecute the disciplinary matter. Ellis, in turn, “agreed to cooperate” with the County’s investigation of four other officers suspected of similar misconduct. “As a result of his cooperation, Cumberland County agreed to dismiss the disciplinary charges and permit Mr. Ellis to retire in good standing” with a reduced pension. Libertarians sent the County an OPRA request seeking, as relevant here, the settlement agreement and Ellis’s “'name, title, position, salary, length of service, date of separation and the reason therefor’ in accordance with N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10.” The County declined to produce the settlement agreement, claiming it was a personnel record exempt from disclosure. In response to the request for information, the County stated in part that “Officer Ellis was charged with a disciplinary infraction and was terminated.” Libertarians filed a complaint in Superior Court, and the trial court ordered the County to provide a redacted version of the settlement agreement. The County appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s judgment. The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded the trial court properly ordered disclosure of a redacted settlement agreement, and the Appellate Division reversed. The Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s order. View "Libertarians for Transparent Government v. Cumberland County" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Graphnet, Inc. and defendant Retarus, Inc. were considered industry competitors -- they each provided, among other things, cloud-based facsimile services. In 2014, Retarus published a brochure containing allegedly defamatory statements about Graphnet. Graphnet representatives received a copy of the brochure at a May 2016 event. In August 2016, Graphnet filed a complaint against Retarus. Throughout discovery, Graphnet failed to produce requested documents and took no depositions. Based on Graphnet’s failure to present supporting evidence, the trial court dismissed all claims except for the defamation and slander claims. The trial court and the parties agreed that the court would charge the jury pursuant to Model Civil Jury Charge 8.46, “Defamation Damages (Private or Public),” which instructed a jury on the elements of defamation. The trial court’s instructions tracked the model charge closely, including Section D, which is devoted to “Nominal Damages for Slander Per Se or Libel.” In this appeal, the issue presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's consideration was whether a new trial on all damages was required when the jury was improperly instructed on nominal damages and a plaintiff opposes remittitur. Graphnet argued the trial court erred as a matter of law by ordering remittitur without Graphnet’s consent. The Appellate Division affirmed in part, reversed in part, recognizing the jury’s $800,000 nominal damages award was “shockingly excessive and cannot stand” but concluded that the trial court improperly awarded Graphnet $500 in nominal damages in violation of the doctrine of remittitur. The appellate court remanded for a new trial on nominal damages only. As the Appellate Division found, the Supreme Court found remittitur was improper without Graphnet’s consent. But this matter required a new trial on all damages in which the jury was properly instructed on actual and nominal damages. The Supreme Court also referred Model Civil Jury Charge 8.46D to the Committee on Model Civil Jury Charges to be amended. View "Graphnet, Inc. v. Retarus, Inc." on Justia Law

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In Spring 2015, plaintiffs Thomas and Julie Stewart were injured when they lost control of their motorcycle while riding over a Garden State Parkway overpass. Thomas testified that, after he and his wife passed through the Toms River toll plaza, their bike began to “shimmy,” and Thomas suspected that he had suffered a flat tire. As they tried to pull over, they crossed the expansion joint between the roadway and the bridge, and the bike’s back end bounced up and ejected Julie. Thomas then let go of the bike, slid to the ground, and both he and Julie suffered serious injuries. They brought this action against defendants, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and several of its paving and roadwork contractors, including Earle Asphalt. The parties engaged in over two years of discovery, with plaintiffs requesting extensions seven times. During argument before the trial court on defendants’ joint motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs changed their theory of liability. They argued, for the first time, that defendants failed to properly pave a portion of roadway on the overpass, leaving a height differential in the pavement. Under that newly asserted theory, plaintiffs alleged that it was the height differential in the roadway, rather than the joint, that caused them to lose control of the motorcycle. The trial court declined to consider the new theory and granted summary judgment to the Authority on its immunity defense and to Earle on its derivative immunity defense. The Appellate Division reversed, finding a genuine issue of material fact existed based on the testimony of one of the motorcyclists who accompanied plaintiffs and claimed to have seen a piece of metal in the roadway. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s judgment. The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that plaintiffs’ new theory should not have been considered given its late presentation. Nonetheless, for completeness, the Court held that plaintiffs’ new theory also did not raise an issue of material fact. The trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants was reinstated, and the complaint was dismissed with prejudice. View "Stewart v. New Jersey Turnpike Authority" on Justia Law

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In June 2018, plaintiff “Clara” and defendant “Martin” had sex after a night of drinking. Plaintiff alleged she was too intoxicated to give consent, but defendant claimed the entire encounter was consensual. Plaintiff filed for a temporary restraining order pursuant to the Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act of 2015 (SASPA), which required consideration of at least two factors, commonly referred to as the two "prongs:": “(1) the occurrence of one or more acts of nonconsensual sexual contact . . . against the alleged victim; and (2) the possibility of future risk to the safety or well-being of the alleged victim.” After a hearing, the trial court found both parties’ accounts to be “equally plausible.” Applying the preponderance of the evidence standard, the court concluded that Clara’s extreme voluntary intoxication rendered her “temporarily incapable of understanding the nature of her conduct” and that she had therefore been subjected to nonconsensual sexual contact within the meaning of SASPA’s first prong. With regard to the second prong, the court noted the lack of evidence that Martin sought to contact Clara after their encounter. Nonetheless, recognizing that SASPA was intended to provide protection to victims of nonconsensual sexual contact, as well as the possibility that Martin “may now harbor a grudge against [Clara] which would probably not have occurred but for these proceedings,” the court concluded that “it is more likely than not that a final restraining order is appropriate.” The Appellate Division reversed and remanded, holding that the proper standard to assess whether plaintiff was incapable of consent due to intoxication was the prostration of faculties standard. The New Jersey Supreme Court found both lower courts were wrong: the appropriate standard to determine whether sexual activity was consensual under SASPA was the standard articulated in New Jersey in Interest of M.T.S., 129 N.J. 422 (1992), which was applied from the perspective of the alleged victim. The trial court's judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for the trial court for assessment under the standard articulated in M.T.S. View "C.R. v. M.T." on Justia Law

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In August 2014, at approximately 2:26 a.m., Hiram Gonzalez was involved in a one-vehicle accident. Officers Leon Tucker and Saad Hashmi of the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) were dispatched to the scene. They determined Gonzalez’s vehicle was inoperable and called for a tow truck. Officer Tucker offered to drive Gonzalez to a nearby gas or PATH station, but Gonzalez refused, saying he would wait for his brother. Officer Hashmi acknowledged that the standard police practice is to leave a stranded motorist in a safe place or offer them a ride within the city’s limits, but he claimed there was no standard practice for when a stranded motorist refuses a ride but was not in a safe place. Officer Hashmi also stated that he and Officer Tucker could have waited with Gonzalez until he had a ride, but they did not because it was a busy Saturday night in the summer and “there were a lot of calls going out.” Before leaving the scene, the officers told Gonzalez to remain in the pedestrian walkway, which had a guardrail between the roadway and the sidewalk. Gonzalez was struck at around 3:42 a.m. According to a toxicology report, he had a BAC of .209% at the time he died. The officers claimed that Gonzalez did not appear intoxicated. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review centered on whether the officers were entitled, under the particular facts and circumstances of this case, to any of the immunities from liability provided by the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA), the Good Samaritan Act, or N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16, a statute that immunized officers from liability for assisting persons intoxicated in a public place to an appropriate location. The Court determined the immunities from liability provided by the Good Samaritan Act, N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16, and most TCA provisions invoked by defendants did not apply here. Defendants’ actions might be entitled to qualified immunity under certain TCA provisions on which defendants relied, however, if the involved officers’ actions were discretionary, rather than ministerial, in nature. In this instance, because of a factual dispute, that determination was for the jury to make upon remand. View "Estate of Hiram Gonzalez v. City of Jersey City" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Armando Rios, Jr., a Hispanic male, was hired by defendant Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc. (Meda) in May 2015. Defendant Tina Cheng-Avery was Rios’s direct supervisor. Rios claimed Cheng-Avery twice directed a racially-derogatory term toward him at their place of work. Rios says he reported her comments to Meda’s Director of Human Resources after each incident. Cheng-Avery placed Rios on probation in February 2016 for poor performance. Meda fired Rios in June 2016. Rios filed a complaint alleging in part that defendants violated the Law Against Discrimination (LAD) by creating a hostile work environment. The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that no rational factfinder could conclude Cheng-Avery’s alleged comments were sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment. The Appellate Division affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that the remarks from the perspective of a reasonable Hispanic employee in Rios’s position, a rational jury could conclude the demeaning and contemptuous slurs, allegedly uttered by a direct supervisor, were sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment in violation of the LAD. The Appellate Division was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Rios v. Meda Pharmaceutical, Inc." on Justia Law

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In January 2015, plaintiff Angel Pareja was walking to work when he slipped on ice, fell, and broke his hip. The sidewalk area on which he fell was on property owned and managed by defendant Princeton International Properties, Inc. (Princeton International). The night before, a wintry mix of light rain, freezing rain, and sleet began to fall. Around the time of his fall, light rain and pockets of freezing rain were falling. Pareja’s expert opined that Princeton International could have successfully reduced the hazardous icy condition by pre-treating the sidewalk. The trial court granted summary judgment to Princeton International. The Appellate Division reversed, holding Princeton International had a duty of reasonable care to maintain the sidewalk even when precipitation was falling. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the trial court, finding that Princeton International owed Pareja a duty only in unusual circumstances, none of which were present here. Princeton International took no action to increase Pareja’s risk, and the record showed that the ice on the sidewalk was not a pre-existing condition. View "Pareja v. Princeton International Properties" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Mary Richter, a longtime type 1 diabetic and teacher, experienced a hypoglycemic event in a classroom. She sustained serious and permanent life-altering injuries. Richter filed a claim under the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), alleging that her employer failed to accommodate her pre-existing disability. The issues this appeal presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court were: (1) whether Richter was required to establish an adverse employment action -- such as a demotion, termination, or other similarly recognized adverse employment action -- to be able to proceed with an LAD failure-to-accommodate disability claim; and (2) whether plaintiff’s claim was barred by the “exclusive remedy provision” of the Worker’s Compensation Act (WCA) because she recovered workers’ compensation benefits. The Supreme Court held an adverse employment action was not a required element for a failure-to-accommodate claim under the LAD. Further, plaintiff’s LAD claim based on defendants’ alleged failure to accommodate her pre-existing diabetic condition was not barred by the WCA, and plaintiff need not filter her claim through the required showings of the “intentional wrong exception.” View "Richter v. Oakland Board of Education" on Justia Law