New Jersey’s Rules of Court allow parties to seek relief from judgments and orders based upon a showing of exceptional circumstances. However, it is important to remember that once such a motion has been decided, any subsequent motion seeking identical relief, no matter how it is presented, may be treated by the court as a motion for reconsideration and subject to specific standards.
The plaintiff’s attorneys in the recent Appellate Division decision in Cafuli v. Paszul learned this lesson the hard way. The plaintiff’s trial attorney was unable to locate an expert witness who had been named during discovery, and who was needed to testify on plaintiff’s behalf to overcome the “verbal threshold” needed to avoid dismissal. Although plaintiff’s trial attorney was aware of the issue as of the first trial call, he did not inform the court of the issue or request additional time to obtain a new expert report until the sixth trial call — approximately one year after discovery in the matter had ended.
After the plaintiff’s trial attorney acknowledged that the plaintiff could not prove the case without an expert, the trial judge dismissed the matter. Plaintiff did not appeal that decision or file a motion for reconsideration. Four months later, plaintiff filed a motion to reinstate the complaint. That motion was denied. Again, plaintiff did not appeal or file a timely motion for reconsideration. Two months later, plaintiff again moved to reinstate the complaint, citing lack of diligence on the part of the plaintiff’s trial attorney. The trial court again denied that motion, ruling that it was essentially one for reconsideration, filed untimely and without merit. Plaintiff then filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied.
On review, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion for relief from judgment and the motion for reconsideration. The court stated that the trial judge correctly recognized that plaintiff’s second motion, although couched as a motion for relief from judgment, sought the same relief as the first motion. Therefore, it was an improperly filed motion for reconsideration. As a result, the motion for relief from judgment and the motion for reconsideration were both properly denied.
This case is a stark reminder that time limitations, especially on motions for reconsideration and appeals, are taken very seriously by the courts. This case also serves as a reminder that, no matter how a motion is “packaged,” the court will look to the substance of the requests for relief in determining whether the motion has been correctly filed.
Thanks to Christina Emerson for her contribution to this post. If you would like further information please write to Mike Bono.