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Unfamiliarity with Electronic Filing is No Excuse (NJ)

June 6, 2019

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<p style="text-align: justify;">In <em><a href="">Cuomo v. TSI Ridgewood, LLC dba New York Sports Club</a></em><a href=""></a>, the plaintiff sued New York Sports Club after tripping over an exercise bench, alleging fractures in her left wrist and left elbow, cartilage tears in her left knee, and herniations in her cervical spine. After the parties exchanged liability expert reports, with the plaintiff alleging the subject exercise bench was out-of-place and defendant alleging the opposite, discovery ended. The parties appeared for mandatory, “non-binding” arbitration. Although defendant sought to vacate the resulting arbitration award, the court held its efforts did not substantially comply with mandatory requirements – rendering the award “binding.”</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">According to <span style="text-decoration: underline;">R</span>. 4:21A-1, essentially all tort actions arising out of automobile negligence as well as all personal injury claims (except professional malpractice and productions liability actions) proceed to mandatory, non-binding arbitration at the close of discovery. Although the arbitration award is “non-binding,” the decision is final and enforceable as a judgment if (1) a party does not petition the court within thirty (30) days for a trial de novo and (2) pay the appropriate trial de novo fee. <em>See </em><span style="text-decoration: underline;">R</span>. 4:21A-6; <span style="text-decoration: underline;">N.J.S.A.</span> 2A:23A-26. If a party fails to heed this procedural requirement, the court “shall, upon motion of any of the parties, confirm the arbitration decision.” <em>Ibid</em>.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">In <span style="text-decoration: underline;">Cuomo</span>, the plaintiff asserted a personal injury claim. Pursuant to <span style="text-decoration: underline;">R</span>. 4:21A-1, the case was referred to mandatory, non-binding arbitration. The arbitrator entered the arbitration award on January 31, 2018, categorizing plaintiff’s damages as multiple fractures and herniations, with alleged specials including lost wages and out-of-pocket expenses. The arbitrator entered a gross arbitration award of $250,000 – reduced to a net award of $200,000 due to plaintiff’s 20% comparative negligence. According to the rule, the defendant had thirty days (until March 2, 2018) to file a trial de novo demand and pay the requisite fee.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Defendant first attempted to file the demand by serving the clerk of the Civil Division by courier service on February 13, 2018 with a physical check. The clerk rejected the demand and the check on February 21, 2018 because “[a]ll…documents filed by an attorney or law firm must be done electronically through eCourts” and indicated the documents would be marked "'received' but not 'filed[.]'” Although defendant next filed the demand electronically via eCourts on February 23, 2018, the clerk responded, “Payment Missing.” No further action was taken. After thirty (30) days expired, the plaintiff filed a motion to confirm the arbitration award and enter judgment, while defendant sought leave to file the demand for trial de novo.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The trial court ruled for the plaintiff and entered judgment in the amount of the arbitration award. Defendant appealed. The Appellate Division affirmed, noting (1) all attorneys were required to have an Judiciary Account Charge System (JACS) account to electronically file documents that required a fee as of May 17, 2017; (2) all attorneys were required to file all documents electronically via eCourts (in the venue) as of October 16, 2017; and (3) defendant did not substantially comply with the trial de novo rule. As a result, clerical errors do not warrant relaxation of the thirty-day trial de novo period.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Brent Bouma for his contribution to this post. Please email <a href="">Vito A. Pinto</a> with any questions.</p>

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