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Opinion Summaries

Posted Date Name of Case (Docket Number) Type
July 17, 2024 ANDRIS ARIAS VS. COUNTY OF BERGEN (L-6633-22, BERGEN COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (A-2574-22)

The court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of plaintiff's personal injury action under the Landowners Liability Act (LLA), N.J.S.A. 2A:42A-2 to -10.  Plaintiff fell while rollerblading in a park owned and maintained by the County of Bergen.  The County of Bergen argued entitlement to immunity under the LLA. 

The court, focusing on "the dominant character of the land" where plaintiff fell rather than the land uses surrounding the park, agreed with the trial court's conclusion that the park constituted a "premises" under the LLA.  Therefore, the County of Bergen was entitled to immunity absent "willful or malicious failure to guard, or to warn against a dangerous condition."

Given the dwindling available open space in this State, the LLA reflects an important public policy of encouraging large land areas, consisting of natural outdoor expanses, where the general public may participate in sport and recreational activities free of charge.  Premises under the LLA may consist of large tracts of rural or semi-rural lands or "lands having similar characteristics," such as the park owned by the County of Bergen.     

Appellate
July 11, 2024 Candace A. Moschella v. Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center (A-7-23 ; 088312)

The AOM plaintiff submitted complied with N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-27. First, an AOM does not need to specify that the affiant reviewed medical records. Second, a doctor to whom the affidavit attributed negligence is the agent of a named defendant and is identified in the AOM as one of the John or Jane Doe defendants included in the complaint. The Court stresses the importance of the Ferreira conference in professional negligence actions.

Supreme
July 10, 2024 William Pace v. Hamilton Cove (A-4-23 ; 088302)

Class action waivers in consumer contracts are not per se contrary to public policy, but they may be unenforceable if found to be unconscionable or to violate other tenets of state contract law. In this case, because plaintiffs clearly and unambiguously waived their right to maintain a class action and the lease contract is not unconscionable as a matter of law, it is enforceable.

Supreme
July 9, 2024 MIST PHARMACEUTICALS, LLC VS. BERKLEY INSURANCE COMPANY (L-3329-17, UNION COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (A-1286-22)

Defendant insurance company appeals from an order granting partial summary judgment to plaintiff policy holder finding a duty to defend and indemnify.  The trial court found that defendant had unreasonably withheld consent to settle in the underlying actions and was precluded by the Supreme Court's holding in Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. v. Security Ins. Co. of Hartford, 72 N.J 63 (1976), from declining coverage pursuant to the policy's capacity exclusion.

The court first concluded that on the undisputed facts in the record, defendant's conduct was not unreasonable, and that the facts were distinguishable from Fireman's Fund.  After engaging in de novo review of the record, including the policy, the court concluded the capacity exclusion applied to bar coverage.  

Appellate
July 5, 2024 STATE OF NEW JERSEY VS. MARY MELLODY (04-03-22, SUSSEX COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (A-1087-22)

The court reverses defendant's driving while intoxicated (DWI) conviction because it was based on evidence obtained by a police officer following his unlawful entry into defendant's garage.  The court remands for the Law Division judge to determine whether defendant's careless driving conviction can be sustained based on information learned before the officer unlawfully crossed the threshold of defendant's home.

The court addresses the circumstances in which a police officer may enter a suspect's residence in connection with a drunk or careless driving investigation.  The court holds that while police have the authority to perform various "community caretaking" functions—such as determining whether a suspected drunk driver needs medical attention—they may not make a warrantless entry into a suspect's home to execute an investigative detention without consent or exigent circumstances.    The court holds this rule applies to defendant's garage. 

The court also holds this was not a fleeting or de minimus entry.  The officer entered the garage to execute an investigative detention, that is, to seize defendant.  The court stresses that even the brief entry of the home to effectuate the seizure of a resident is a significant constitutional intrusion.  The court ultimately concludes the State failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence the officer lawfully entered the garage to render emergency aid under the exigent circumstances exception. 

Appellate
July 3, 2024 STATE OF NEW JERSEY VS. JESSICA S. MATRONGOLO (23-08-0676, MIDDLESEX COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (A-1098-23)

In this appeal, the court held individuals convicted of a disorderly persons or petty disorderly persons offense are not categorically excluded from Recovery Court under Track Two based on the classification of their conviction.  The court first found the matter justiciable despite the defendant's death and then rejected the rationale that Recovery Court is available only to those convicted of a "crime," which disorderly persons and petty disorderly persons offenses are not under our Criminal Code.

Appellate
July 2, 2024 In the Matter of Registrant R.S. (A-23-23 ; 088761)

Under N.J.S.A. 2C:7-13(b)(2), a Megan’s Law registrant is entitled to an evidentiary hearing if the registrant demonstrates that there exists a 
genuine issue of material fact about whether the registrant’s conduct is characterized by a pattern of repetitive and compulsive behavior. The 
State may rely on an earlier psychological report that had been prepared pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:47-3, but the independent findings by a  Megan’s Law judge as to compulsivity and repetitiveness must be based on clear and convincing evidence.

Supreme
July 1, 2024 In the Matter of J.A. (A-19-23 ; 088405)

Because J.A. was adjudicated delinquent and not convicted of a sex offense, he is required to satisfy the public safety prong of subsection (f), not the offense-free prong. See In re Registrant R.H., ___ N.J. ___, ___ (2024) (slip op. at 3). Based on the reasoning of R.H. and the trial court’s finding that J.A. does not pose a safety threat, he is eligible for termination of his Megan’s Law obligations under subsection (f). The Court does not reach arguments about the constitutionality of N.J.S.A.2C:7-2(f) as applied to juveniles.

Supreme
July 1, 2024 In the Matter of Registrant R.H.; In the Matter of Registrant T.L. (A-20/21-23 ; 088232)

Based on the plain language the Legislature used in crafting N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(f), the requirement to remain offense-free for fifteen years 
applies to juveniles who are prosecuted as adults and convicted of a listed sex offense, or released from a correctional facility, but not to those who are adjudicated delinquent in the family court. Consistent with the law’s text, however, all registrants including juveniles must satisfy the second requirement -- the public safety requirement -- to be eligible to terminate their obligations under Megan’s Law. Here, the offense-free prong does not apply to R.H. and T.L. because they were adjudicated delinquent, and not convicted, of a sex offense. The Court therefore remands each matter to the appropriate trial court to determine whether there is clear and convincing evidence that R.H. and T.L. satisfy the public safety prong.

Supreme
June 28, 2024 ESTATE OF WILLIAM MASSI, ET AL. VS. BETTE BARR, ET AL. (L-5579-18, MIDDLESEX COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (REDACTED) (A-2005-21)

This Tort Claims Act case arises from a now-deceased plaintiff's bicycle accident on a two-lane public road that straddled two municipalities.  The accident occurred on a stretch of the road that was chronically pitted with potholes, apparently due to drainage and freezing problems.  According to the deposition testimony of a local public safety director, potholes at that location had to be patched and re-patched "hundreds" of times in the five years before the accident.  Several citizens periodically reported the road's poor condition before the accident.  The road had no full-sized shoulders or designated bike lanes.

Plaintiff swerved his bicycle to avoid a passing truck, and lost control and fell when his tires hit the potholes.  Plaintiff's engineering expert opines that incorrect methods had been used to patch the road.  The expert further has opined that the persisting uneven surfaces were dangerous, not only for bicycles but also for motorcycles.

This opinion clarifies and extends the principles of Polzo v. County of Essex, 196 N.J. 569 (2008) ("Polzo I") and Polzo v. County of Essex, 209 N.J. 51 (2012) ("Polzo II"), concerning roadway surface conditions that endanger the safety of bicyclists on public roads.  In a fact pattern involving a bicycle accident on a road's potholed shoulder, the Court held in Polzo II that the public entity defendant had no duty to maintain the shoulder to an extent safe for bicyclists.  Id. at 70-75.  The Court distinguished that no-duty-to-bicyclists situation from a roadway condition that also happens to be unsafe for motorized vehicles.  Ibid.

This court applies the rationale of Polzo II here to this bicycle accident that occurred in a vehicular lane, and to a record with an unrebutted expert opinion that the road surface was unsafe for both motorcycles and bicycles.  The court concludes a public entity that is palpably unreasonable in failing to correct such a known dangerous road condition may be liable to a bicyclist who is injured because of that danger.  In doing so, the court recognizes that a plaintiff operating a two-wheeled vehicle must use due care when confronting a visibly hazardous potholed surface.  These principles are consistent with New Jersey Department of Transportation regulations concerning the safety of roadway surfaces.

Viewing this record in a light most favorable to plaintiff, the court vacates summary judgment in favor of the two municipal defendants that maintained and patched the road.  In the unpublished portion of this opinion, the court addresses other discrete matters.

Appellate
June 27, 2024 ENGLEWOOD HOSPITAL & MEDICAL CENTER, ET AL. VS. THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, ET AL. (L-1434-17 AND L-1397-18, MERCER COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (A-2767-21)

Plaintiff hospitals brought action challenging the charity care program that requires them to provide care to all patients regardless of their ability to pay, while also prohibiting them from billing patients who qualify for charity care under the statute.  The trial court dismissed certain hospitals' claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.  As to the remaining claims, the trial court found that the regulations do not affect a constitutional taking under either a per se or Penn Central analysis. 

On de novo review, the court first addressed the ripeness issue.  It held that plaintiffs raised facial challenges to charity care and therefore had properly raised their claims in the first instance with the trial court.  Therefore, the court considered all plaintiff hospitals' constitutional takings claims.  Next, the court held that plaintiffs failed to show either a per se or regulatory taking violative of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution as well as Article I, Paragraph 20 of the New Jersey Constitution.  As a result, the court affirmed the trial court's order granting summary judgment on the merits, but did so on different grounds, entering summary judgment against all plaintiffs, including those previously dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.    

Appellate
June 26, 2024 ESTATE OF DONVILLE CAMPBELL, ETC. VS. WOODCLIFF HEALTH & REHABILITATION CENTER, ET AL. (L-7744-21, BERGEN COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (CONSOLIDATED) (A-3177-22/A-3178-22)

Plaintiff's decedent succumbed to the COVID-19 virus in May 2020.  The Estate claims the decedent's death was a result of defendants' "negligent, grossly negligent, careless and reckless actions and omissions" in discharging his wife, from whom he allegedly contracted the disease, from defendant long-term care facility in April 2020, while the result of her PCR test was pending.  Defendants notified the decedent's wife, their patient, and the decedent of the patient's positive test upon defendants' receipt of the result two days after her discharge.  The decedent tested positive for the virus shortly thereafter.  Defendants' patient survived her bout with the virus; the decedent tragically did not.

The court reverses the denial of defendant health providers' motions to dismiss plaintiff's medical negligence, wrongful death and survival claim, finding, contrary to plaintiff's assertion, that there is no well-established common law rule in New Jersey that a "physician has the duty to warn third persons against possible exposure to contagious or infectious diseases," and that plaintiff has not otherwise pled any recognizable derivative duty defendants owed to the decedent.

Although orders granting Rule 4:6-2 motions are ordinarily entered without prejudice, the Legislature's decision in the New Jersey COVID-19 Immunity Statute, L. 2020, c. 18, to temporarily limit the scope of whatever duty we might recognize defendants owed their patient and, derivatively, the decedent, to one of simply avoiding gross negligence during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic leaves plaintiff unable to state a claim on the facts alleged.  It is not possible for a reasonable jury to find defendants were not simply negligent, but grossly negligent or reckless in discharging the decedent's wife to his care in April 2020, before knowing the result of her pending PCR test.

Appellate
June 25, 2024 TYREE DESHAWN MIMS VS. CITY OF GLOUCESTER, ET AL. (L-2054-23, CAMDEN COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (A-0068-23)

This appeal concerned the threshold requirements for an applicant's waiver of court fees based on indigency. Rule 1:13-2(a), governing proceedings by indigents, was supplemented by the New Jersey Supreme Court's April 5, 2017 order, which established a standard fee waiver application process and criteria.  The Court's order authorized the Administrative Office of the Courts to promulgate directives providing "uniform fee waiver request forms" and a standard protocol.  See generally Admin. Off. of the Cts., Admin. Directive #03-17, Fee Waivers Based on Indigence (rev. Apr. 20, 2017). 

Plaintiff Tyree Deshawn Mims appealed from a July 19, 2023 Law Division order, which denied without prejudice his motion to proceed as indigent.  The trial court found that plaintiff failed to provide the required documentation.  On appeal, plaintiff contended his submitted documentation satisfied the eligibility requirements of Rule 1:13-2(a), warranting a waiver of court fees in this action and in all future litigation.  The court concluded the trial court properly denied plaintiff's motion because he failed to complete the uniform fee waiver forms and to submit the required supporting documentation establishing indigency.

Appellate
June 24, 2024 ROSALYN MUSKER VS. SUUCHI, INC., ET AL. (L-5652-20, BERGEN COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (A-0841-23)

This interlocutory appeal concerns the interpretation of the Wage Payment Law, N.J.S.A. 34:11-4.1 to -4.14, and its application to a defendant employer's commission structure.  The motion judge ruled the plaintiff employee's commissions in dispute stemming from the sale of Personal Protection Equipment ("PPE") during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic were not "wages" covered by the statute and instead fell within the statute's exception for "supplementary incentives."  Plaintiff had sought payment of more than $1.3 million in commissions claimed on over $32 million in PPE sales that she helped generate in the three-month period from March 2020 through June 2020.

The Supreme Court granted the employee's motion for leave to appeal, remanding the case to this court "for consideration on the merits, limited to whether the commission structure at issue falls within the Wage Payment Law."

Under the circumstances presented, the compensation the employee sought for the PPE sales are "supplementary incentives" excluded by N.J.S.A. 34:11-4.1(c), and not regular commissions within the ordinary scope of her sales compensation plan.  The employer's commitment to pay commissions on PPE sales was outside of plaintiff's customary role in selling the company's services and were designed to stimulate the sales of PPE during a time of sudden pandemic-related demand.

The court therefore affirms the motion judge's ruling, but, as the judge recognized, subject to plaintiff's non-statutory contractual claims.

Appellate
June 18, 2024 KARTIK PATEL, ET AL. VS. NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF TREASURY, ETC. (L-1883-22, MERCER COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (A-2370-22)

This case of first impression resolves the proper means to attempt to rescind a certificate of dissolution and termination of a New Jersey limited liability company (LLC), which allegedly has been filed in error or without authorization.  The statutory scheme for LLCs, N.J.S.A. 42:2C-1 to -94, contains no provision authorizing the New Jersey Department of the Treasury to perform such a rescission.

The Department accordingly declined plaintiffs' request to rescind a certificate of dissolution and termination that plaintiffs allege had been improperly filed by a former LLC member, advising that such relief can only be obtained through a court proceeding.  Plaintiffs then filed a civil action in the Law Division, which transferred the dispute to this court.

The court concludes the LLC statutes do not empower the Department to rescind such certificates administratively, in the absence of a court order directing such relief.  However, the court holds that our trial courts possess the jurisdiction and authority to grant such relief, with a proper showing of justification by the applicant and upon appropriate notice to interested or affected parties.

Appellate
June 13, 2024 Alejandra Padilla v. Young Il An (A-43-22 ; 087862)

Considerations of fairness lead the Court to hold that all commercial landowners -- including owners of vacant commercial lots -- have a duty to maintain the public sidewalks abutting their property in reasonably good condition and are liable to pedestrians injured as a result of their negligent failure to do so. Consistent with the rule it adopts today, the Court reverses the Appellate Division’s judgment and remands the matter to the trial court for further proceedings.

Supreme
June 12, 2024 STATE OF NEW JERSEY VS. TAVIAUS WILSON, ET AL. (19-07-0670, CUMBERLAND COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (A-1365-23)

The court reverses an interlocutory Law Division order suppressing handguns and a large-capacity ammunition magazine police found in a locked glove box during a traffic stop.   The case presents two questions of first impression under New Jersey law.  Are police permitted to search a glove box under the automobile exception based solely on the odor of marijuana emanating generally from the passenger compartment without first determining whether the odor is coming specifically from the vicinity of the glove box?  And does the New Jersey automobile exception extend to a glove box that is intentionally locked, manifesting a heightened expectation of privacy in its contents?  

Applying principles explained in State v. Cohen, 254 N.J. 308, 328 (2023), the court holds that the smell of marijuana emanating from the passenger compartment provided probable cause to search the entire interior for marijuana, which includes the glove box, since that was a place within the passenger compartment where marijuana could be concealed.  The court declines to create a new rule that would essentially require police to follow a scent trail or pre-inspect containers in the passenger compartment before opening them. 

The court likewise rejects defendants' contention that by locking the glove box, defendants manifested a heightened expectation of privacy comparable to that which applies to a home, taking the glove box outside the realm of the automobile exception.  The court also holds it does not matter under the automobile exception whether the contents of the locked glove box were accessible to the vehicle occupants.  In this respect, the automobile exception is different from the search-incident-to-arrest exception, which limits the scope of a warrantless search to areas "within [the arrestees'] immediate control," see Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 763 (1969). 

Finally, the court rules that by using a key to open the locked glove box, rather than breaking it open, the "intensity" with which the warrantless search was executed was eminently reasonable and lawful.       

Appellate
June 3, 2024 STATE OF NEW JERSEY VS. JEFFREY WALKER (11-02-0411, MONMOUTH COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (A-2384-22)

          Defendant Jeffrey Walker entered into a plea agreement with the State after misappropriating health care insurance premiums from his company's employees instead of paying them to the insurance carrier.  In return for defendant's plea to third-degree theft by illegal retention, N.J.S.A. 2C:20-9; and third-degree misappropriation of entrusted property, N.J.S.A. 2C:21-15 and agreement to pay restitution to his victims of $72,471.35, the State agreed to recommend five years of non-custodial probation.  Defendant was then sentenced in accordance with the plea agreement.

         Defendant's probation ended and the then-outstanding balance of his restitution was transferred to collections.  At the time of the appeal, defendant had paid only $27,746 of the money he misappropriated, still owing $45,595.35.  Defendant learned his restitution had been prorated among all the victims, and the prorated restitution owed to the victims not yet located had escheated to the State in case they were later located.

         Defendant filed a post-conviction relief ("PCR") petition to return the escheated funds and pay the victims who had been located.  Defendant then argued it would be in the interest of justice that his restitution obligation be deemed completed once the located victims were fully paid.

         The court rejected defendant's proposal to essentially renegotiate individual restitution settlements as it emphasized the restitution amount and framework was part of a plea agreement negotiated with the State and approved by the trial court.  To extinguish defendant's obligation to pay the full restitution would unjustly reward defendant for his failure to timely pay the full restitution amount within the negotiated five years.  Defendant's proposal would allow him to keep some of the fruits of his offense and deprive his victims of compensation for the losses suffered.  It would also run counter to the remunerative, rehabilitative, deterrence, and punitive goals of restitution.  As a result, the court affirmed the trial court's denial of PCR.

Appellate
June 3, 2024 DONNA PORCARO V. DIRECTOR, DIVISION OF TAXATION (012296-2020 ; 012296-2020)

STATE GROSS INCOME TAX

Tax Court: Donna Porcaro v. Director, Division of Taxation, Docket No. 012296-2020; opinion by Bedrin Murray, J.T.C., decided May 31, 2024.  For plaintiffs – Donna Porcaro (Self-Represented); for defendant – Linzhi Wang (Matthew Platkin, Attorney General of New Jersey, attorney). 

Held:  Plaintiff’s challenge to defendant’s denial of her claim for a refund of New Jersey gross income tax (GIT) for tax year 2016 is dismissed as untimely, depriving this court of subject matter jurisdiction.  Based on the totality of credible testimonial and documentary evidence presented, the court finds that plaintiff received defendant’s December 21, 2017 final determination denying plaintiff’s refund claim in December 2017, and not in May 2020 as plaintiff alleges.  Therefore, plaintiff was unable to overcome the presumption of receipt that attaches to defendant’s final determination under N.J.S.A. 54:50-6(a).  As such, plaintiff’s complaint is dismissed with prejudice.  

(18 Pages)        
 

Tax
May 31, 2024 STATE OF NEW JERSEY VS. SEAN JONES, ET AL. (88-07-2659 AND 92-12-4339, ESSEX COUNTY AND STATEWIDE AND 96-02-0526, CAMDEN COUNTY AND STATEWIDE) (CONSOLIDATED) (A-3911-21/A-1264-22/A-1358-22)

In State v. Comer, the New Jersey Supreme Court held juvenile offenders, prosecuted as adults and convicted of murder, are constitutionally entitled to reconsideration of their sentences after twenty years' imprisonment.  249 N.J. 359, 369-70 (2022).  In these consolidated appeals, all three defendants were eighteen years of age or older when they were prosecuted and convicted of murder, and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from thirty years with a thirty-year parole disqualifier to life with a forty-year parole bar.  Having exhausted their appeals and collateral review, defendants filed pro se applications with the motion courts for the reduction or change of sentence under Rule 3:21-10.  The motion courts denied their applications on the papers, without appointing counsel. 

On appeal, defendants contend, as did other similarly situated youthful offenders before them, the Court's decision in Comer should extend to youthful offenders between the ages of eighteen and twenty when they committed their offenses.  Defendants therefore argue their lengthy sentences should receive the same constitutional protection as juvenile offenders prosecuted and convicted as adults.  Defendants further contend the motion courts should have assigned counsel rather than denying their pro se applications without a hearing. 

The court declined defendants' invitation to extend Comer's holding, concluding the Supreme Court's decision was limited to juvenile offenders tried and convicted of murder in adult court, and the Court neither explicitly nor implicitly extended this right of sentence review to offenders between the ages of eighteen and twenty.  Citing its limited institutional role as an intermediate appellate court, the court expressed its obligation to follow precedential opinions of the United States Supreme Court and the New Jersey Supreme Court.  Noting defendants' arguments lacked merit under Comer and were not particularly complex, the court further concluded the motion courts properly decided their applications without assignment of counsel.  Accordingly, the court affirmed all three orders under review.

Appellate