Dismissal With Prejudice Too Harsh A Remedy For Expert’s Unavailability

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Gavel (pd)There is often tension between a court's need to effectively manage its docket and the overriding objective that a lawsuit be resolved on its merits and not because a party (or its counsel) misses a deadline. Courts establish deadlines. If they are ignored, can the court — as a sanction, and in the interest of managing its docket — dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice? According to the Appellate Division in a recent unpublished decision, Trezza v. Lambert-Wooley, the answer to this question is "no," unless the noncompliance was purposeful and no lesser remedy was available to the court. 

In Trezza,plaintiffs sued defendants for medical malpractice. Three years after the lawsuit was filed, the court set a peremptory trial date. This was rescheduled when the court did not reach the case on the trial date. The trial did not take place on the rescheduled date or a subsequent rescheduled date, both times because defendant's designated trial counsel was unavailable. Thereafter, the Presiding Judge issued a sua sponte order scheduling trial for approximately four months later and setting forth "specific and stringent terms as to the course and conduct of the case relative to trial." The order mandated that: (1) the trial date would not be adjourned to accommodate the parties' or counsels' personal or professional schedules; (2) counsel was required  to monitor the schedules of their parties, witnesses, and experts, and if one or more were not going to be available on the trial date, arrange for a de bene esse deposition ahead of trial; and (3) if designated trial counsel was not available on the trial date, alternate counsel would have to be found, whether or not from the same firm.

Five days before the scheduled trial date, plaintiff's counsel requested that the trial be carried for four days due to the unavailability of plaintiff's liability expert, which he only learned about a few days prior to the request. Defendants' counsel consented to the request. The judge assigned to the case considered the request but, in light of the Presiding Judge's order, determined that he did not have the authority to grant the adjournment. He sent the parties to the Presiding Judge, who denied the request and directed the parties to proceed to trial. "Predicated upon the terms of the order, the age of the case, and plaintiff's expert's unavailability, the judge [then] dismissed the complaint with prejudice." Plaintiffs appealed.

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“Here’s the mail it never fails . . . :” Judge Posner Criticizes “Rhetorical Envelopes” In Which Judicial Opinions Are “Delivered To The Reader”

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Judge (pd)[Apologies for the Blue's Clues reference in the title to this post.]

In his concurring opinion in a recent Seventh Circuit decision — United States v. Dessart — Judge Posner agreed with the majority's conclusions, but wrote separately to express his "reservations about some of the verbal formulas in the majority opinion." He did not "criticize the majority for reciting them" because, as he noted, they are "common, orthodox, even canonical." But he did criticize the "verbal formulas" themselves as being "inessential and in some respects erroneous" and thus, he urged, "ripe for rexamination."

What were the "verbal formulas" that Judge Posner was so keen to criticize? Just some of the legal standards that we see recited in opinions every day. For example, the commonly-used "abuse of discretion" standard, of which Judge Posner appears not to be a big fan. In his concurring opinion, Judge Posner noted that the majority defined this standard as including "among other missteps, 'material errors of law.'" This apparently did not jibe with Judge Posner's understanding of discretion and its abuse, as he explained:

Of course, material errors of law are potentially very serious, but what has that to do with discretion or its abuse? Common as the term "abuse of discretion" is in opinions dealing with appeals from district court decisions, I find it opaque. If the appellate court is persuaded that the trial court erred in a way that makes the trial court's decision unacceptable, it reverses. What has discretion to do with it? And "abuse" seems altogether too strong a term to describe what may be no more than a disagreement between equally competent judges – the trial judge and the appellate judges – that the appellate judges happen to be empowered to resolve as they see fit.

Similarly, he challenged the majority's similarly well-settled statement that an appellate court, when reviewing a trial court's decision to issue a search warrant, must afford that decision "great deference." (Among the issues in the Dessart case was whether a search warrant was supported by probable cause.) Judge Posner acknowledged that the standard comes from a Supreme Court decisions holding that "[a] magistrate's determination of probable cause should be paid great deference by reviewing courts," but questioned it nonetheless. First, he questioned why "great" deference should be afforded to such decisions since "warrants [are] usually issued by the most junior judicial officers – and often police or prosecutors can shop among magistrates for one who is certain or almost certain to respond affirmatively to a request to issue a warrant." Second, Judge Posner noted that "[n]othing in the [Fourth] amendment requires warrants – ever," therefore it was not fair, in Judge Posner's opinion, to conclude, as is often concluded, that the Constitution expresses a preference for searches conducted pursuant to warrants or to afford great deference to a trial court's decision to issue one.

Continue reading ““Here’s the mail it never fails . . . :” Judge Posner Criticizes “Rhetorical Envelopes” In Which Judicial Opinions Are “Delivered To The Reader””

As If You Needed Reminding: Don’t Violate Protective Orders!

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Gavel (pd)The Appellate Division recently reminded all lawyers of the importance of complying with protective orders. In Rotondi v. Dibre Auto Group, LLC, the Appellate Division affirmed a trial court's decision to disqualify plaintiff's counsel from continuing to represent plaintiff because she violated such an order.

In Rotondi, plaintiff purchased a new car from defendant car dealership. One year later, she attempted to refinance the car with the dealer, but ended up filing a class action lawsuit against the dealer and various other entities involved in the refinancing for alleged improprieties in the refinancing process. She alleged violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and various other statutory and common law causes of action. Although filed as a putative class action, plaintiff's attempt to certify the class were eventually denied and the case, in the words of the trial court, "ultimately became simply a claim by [plaintiff] against the dealer."

As part of that lawsuit, the trial court entered a protective order that allowed the parties to designate materials as "Confidential" or "Attorneys' Eyes Only." Under the order, documents designated as "Confidential" could only be used by the "receiving party for purposes of the prosecution or defense of [the] action," and could not be used "by the receiving party for any business, commercial, competitive, or other purpose." Documents designated as "Attorneys' Eyes Only" could only be "disclosed [ ] to outside counsel for the receiving party and to such other persons as counsel for the producing party agrees in advance or as ordered by the court."

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Public or Private? Right To Counsel Of Your Choosing May Depend On Whether You Have Private Counsel Or Appointed Counsel

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

I don't usually post about criminal law cases but the Appellate Division's recent opinion in  State v. Martinez hit close enough to home that I thought it was worth a few words. (I apologize for the uncharacteristically long title. Professor Cole, one of my journalism professors from college, would not be proud.)  

A few years back I was fortunate enough to be asked to represent the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (ACDL-NJ) as amicus curiae in a case before the New Jersey Supreme Court — State v. Miller — that involved a similar issue to the one addressed in Martinez. Miller involved a defendant who was represented by the public defender's office. In the weeks and months leading up to the trial, defendant had been dealing with one public defender, but on the morning of trial a different public defender showed up to represent him. The trial court denied defendant's request for an adjournment, and forced defendant to go to trial with a lawyer he met for the first time on the morning of trial. Defendant was convicted and appealed the trial court's denial of his adjournment request. Both the Appellate Division and the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision. Over an impassioned dissent from Justice Albin, the Supreme Court held that "it would have been preferable for the trial judge to have postponed the commencement of the [trial]," but that the decision to not do so was not an abuse of the trial court's broad discretion to control its own calendar and did not violate the defendant's right to counsel.

In Martinez, the facts were slightly different. Most importantly, as it turns out, unlike Miller, the defendant in Martinez was not represented by a public defender but was instead represented by private counsel. In Martinez, defendant retained a law firm to represent him and expected a specific partner from that firm to represent him at trial. However, the partner was not available on the trial date because of a conflict with another matter. It appears that both the prosecution and defense expected and agreed that the trial date would be adjourned to accomodate the partner's schedule, but the trial court refused to do so. Over defendant's objection, the trial court forced defendant to go to trial, not with the partner that he expected would handle the case, but with an associate from the partner's firm. By all accounts, the associate was capable and experienced, but defendant nonetheless objected to having to go to trial with counsel that was not the counsel he chose. 

 

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More Courts Reject Eleventh-Hour Attempts To Avoid Foreclosure Based On An Alleged Lack Of Standing

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

 Two more Appellate Division panels have refused to allow defendant's in foreclosure lawsuits to raise standing as an eleventh-hour defense.  As we previously reported — Changing Tide in Forclosure Litigation? Courts Taking Closer Look When Defendants Assert Lack Of Standing At Last Minute — there is now a clear trend against allowing defendants to stay silent in the face of a foreclosure lawsuit only to appear at the last minute, usually on the eve of a sheriff's sale, and seek to vacate final judgment based on an alleged lack of standing to foreclose.  Two recent Appellate Division cases continue to bring this point home. 

In IndyMac Bank FSB v. DeCastro, a residential borrower moved to vacate final judgment and dismiss the complaint 15 months after it was entered, arguing that he was not served with the complaint.  The motion was denied.  Defendant filed a second motion to vacate, arguing, for the first time, that the bank lacked standing to foreclose because it was not assigned the mortgage until after the complaint was filed.  This motion was denied as untimely and defendant appealed.  In an opinion, dated March 13, 2013, the Appellate Division affirmed.  In its decision, among other things, the Appellate Division rejected defendant's standing argument, noting: "[W]e have now made clear that lack of standing is not a meritorious defense to a foreclosure complaint."  Moreover, the Appellate Division held that defendant's standing argument was meritless "particularly given defendant's unexcused, years-long delay in asserting that defense or any other claim."  In arriving at this decision, the Appellate Division relied on many of the cases discussed in our prior post. 

Similarly, in WellsFargo Bank, N.A. v. Lopez, a different Appellate Division panel rejected another residential home owner's last-minute attempt to raise standing as a defense to the foreclosure complaint.  The facts in that case were a bit more egregious because the borrower contributed to the four-year delay between the entry of default and the filing of his motion to vacate by filing numerous bankruptcy petitions and seeking a stay to attempt to short sell the property.  Nonetheless, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's denial of the motion to vacate holding, among other things, that the lack of standing, even if true, was not a meritorious defense to a foreclosure complaint, particularly in the post-judgment context.  Again, the Appellate Division relied primarily on the cases included in our prior post.

Changing Tide In Foreclosure Litigation? Courts Taking Closer Look When Defendants Assert Lack Of Standing At Last Minute

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

In a series of recent decisions, New Jersey courts appear to be taking a stance against defendants raising, as a last-minute defense, that a party lacks standing to foreclose.  This is good news for lenders and their assignees, who, prior to these decisions, faced the prospect of proceeding to final judgment of foreclosure, only to have a party appear at the last minute, allege a lack of standing to foreclose, and send the process back to square one. 

The changing body of case law began with the Appellate Division’s opinion in Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas v. Angeles, 428 N.J. Super. 315 (App. Div. 2013).  In that case, defendant failed to defend the action or assert a standing issue until two years after default judgment was entered and more than three years after the complaint was filed.  Id. at 316.  Interestingly, the Appellate Division acknowledged that defendant raised a valid concern about plaintiff’s standing to foreclose, but nonetheless refused to vacate final judgment.  In explaining its decision, the Appellate Division noted:

In foreclosure matters, equity must be applied to plaintiffs as well as defendants. Defendant did not raise the issue of standing until he had the advantage of many years of delay. Some delay stemmed from the New Jersey foreclosure system, other delay was afforded him through the equitable powers of the court, and additional delay resulted from plaintiff's attempt to amicably resolve the matter. Defendant at no time denied his responsibility for the debt incurred nor can he reasonably argue that [Plaintiff] is not the party legitimately in possession of the property. Rather, when all hope of further delay expired, after his home was sold and he was evicted, he made a last-ditch effort to relitigate the case. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that defendant was not equitably entitled to vacate the judgment.

Id. at 320. 

 

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