Can’t Always Blame Your Secretary (NJ)

In the recent unreported decision of Vanderslice v. Stewart, the court considered whether to confirm an arbitration award although the defendants had failed to timely file a demand for trial de novo following a non-binding arbitration.  Vanderslice alleged that he was injured in a motor vehicle accident.  A mandatory, non-binding arbitration was held on January 18, 2012, with a determination that the County was 100% liable to Vanderslice for approximately $145,000 in damages.  The time to reject the arbitration award and file a demand for trial de novo expired on February 17, 2012.  After confirming that no such demand was filed, on February 23, 2012, Vanderslice filed a motion to confirm the arbitration award and the defendants cross-moved to permit a late filing. 

In their cross-motion, the County’s attorney reported that an attorney from his office had prepared the demand and had given it to a secretary to file.  Although the demand was sent to the court, the required fee was not attached.  Rather, a direct voucher accompanied the filing, not an actual payment.  The County’s attorney argued that they had substantially complied with the standard within the required time.  The judge agreed and granted the County’s motion.  The case eventually went to trial and the jury rendered a defense verdict.  Vanderslice appealed. 

The Appellate Court held that the time for rejecting an arbitration award is to be strictly enforced and should only be relaxed upon a showing of exceptional circumstances.  The Court further noted that counsel’s inattention, carelessness, neglect or lack of substantial compliance did not constitute an extraordinary circumstance.  Ultimately, the Appellate Court found that in this specific case the County attorney’s lack of diligence was not an exceptional circumstance, so the arbitration award was confirmed and judgment was entered in favor of the plaintiff.

Special thanks to Heather Aquino for her contributions to this submission.  For more information, please contact Nicole Y. Brown at nbrown@wcmlaw.com.