A Busy August for the Supreme Court So Far

August is often a busy month for the Supreme Court, as the Justices count down to the new Term by deciding most if not all of the remaining cases from the current Term. This year is no exception. So far, the Court has issued an opinion every weekday (except Fridays, when customarily no opinions of the Court are released) in the first two weeks of August. Here is a rundown of the Court’s August rulings to date:

Pritchett v. State, ___ N.J. ___ (2021). This unanimous opinion by Justice LaVecchia yesterday affirmed, as modified, an Appellate Division decision that largely upheld a plaintiff’s jury verdict in a Law Against Discrimination case. But while agreeing with the Appellate Division that a remand was needed as to the issue of punitive damages, the Court modified the Appellate Division’s ruling as to the standards to be applied in evaluating the punitive damages issue.

State v. Anderson, ___ N.J. ___ (2021). Justice LaVecchia wrote the majority opinion for a five-Justice majority (Chief Justice Rabner did not participate). The issue was whether the acceptance of a $300 bribe by defendant, a former employee of the Jersey City Tax Assessor’s office, for which defendant was convicted of a federal crime, was properly required to forfeit his entire pension based on the mandate of N.J.S.A. 43:3-3.1 that that occur. Defendant argued that such result constituted an excessive fine, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Affirming a summary judgment for the State, though on different grounds than those offered by the Appellate Division (as discussed here), the Supreme Court ruled that there had been no “fine,” since a “fine” entails deprivation of a property right. Because the statute mandate forfeiture in absolute terms, the statute meant that public pension rights are quasi-contractual rights, dependent on good behavior, not property rights. Since there was no “fine,” it was unnecessary to reach the issue of whether the loss of pension was excessive. Justice Albin, in dissent, would have found that this was an excessive fine.

State v. McQueen, ___ N.J. ___ (2021). Does the New Jersey Constitution’s right to privacy apply to telephone calls made by an arrested person from a police station on the station’s telephone line when neither party to the call was informed that the police were recording the conversation? That was the question in this case. In a unanimous opinion by Justice Albin, the Court held that the right to privacy protected such a phone call. As a result, the Court affirmed the decision of the majority of the Appellate Division that evidence from that telephone call was properly suppressed.

In re Registrant J.D.-F., ___ N.J. ___ (2021). This was a Megan’s Law case. The issue was whether N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(g), which bars certain sex offenders from applying to terminate their registration as sex offenders, applies retroactively to Megan’s Law offenses that were committed before the effective date of N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(g), where, as in this case, the offender was convicted after that effective date. In an opinion by Justice Fernandez-Vina, the Court unanimously held that retroactive application was improper. That ruling reversed the decisions of the Law Division and the Appellate Division on the retroactivity issue.

Goldhagen v. Pasmowitz, ___ N.J. ___ (2021). This unanimous opinion was by Justice Patterson. The Dog Bite Statute, N.J.S.A. 4:19-16, creates strict liability against the owner of a dog that bites someone else. The question here was whether there is an exception for persons like plaintiff, who worked at a pet care facility where defendant boarded the dog that bit plaintiff. The argument for an exception was based on the concept of primary assumption of risk, and the Appellate Division had recognized such an exception in Reynolds v. Lancaster County Prison, 325 N.J. Super. 298 (App. Div. 1999).  Relying on the plain language of the Dog Bite Statute, which afforded no exceptions, the Supreme Court rejected Reynolds, which both the Law Division and the Appellate Division had adopted in Goldhagen, leading to summary judgment for the defense. Justice Patterson said, however, that defendant could still raise plaintiff’s experience in working with dogs and other factors germane to comparative negligence, at summary judgment and at trial.

Estate of Gonzalez v. City of Jersey City, ___ N.J. ___ (2021). [Disclosure: My firm, Lite DePalma Greenberg & Afanador, LLC, represents Jersey City in certain cases but was not involved in this matter]. This case, on unique and somewhat complex facts, focused on whether police officers responding to a one-car accident on a bridge late at night could claim any of the immunities offered by the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 et seq., the Good Samaritan Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-1.1, or N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16, which immunizes officers from liability for assisting persons intoxicated in a public place to get to an appropriate location. The Law Division had granted summary judgment to the defense, but the Appellate Division reversed. In a detailed opinion by Justice Solomon, the Supreme Court explained that a number of the immunities claimed by the defense did not apply, and that as to others, there were genuine issues of material fact that required a jury determination. The result was an affirmance of the Appellate Division, as modified.

State v. Njango, ___ N.J. ___ (2021). Justice Albin authored this opinion for a unanimous Court. The question presented was “[w]ether prior service credits for time that a person was wrongfully imprisoned beyond the term of incarceration may be applied to periods of parole supervision required under the No Early Release Act.” The Law Division and the Appellate Division both ruled against defendant, but the Supreme Court reversed. The Court applied New Jersey’s “fundamental fairness” doctrine to undo the outcome below, which “has resulted in a year-and-seven-month loss of liberty for which the State will not give Njango credit toward his eight-year mandatory period of parole supervision.” Justice Albin explained that “[t]he objective of parole supervision — to protect the public from the risk from violent offenders — was certainly satisfied when [defendant] was mistakenly or erroneously incarcerated beyond the prescribed time for his release.” (As a side note, the Court also addressed a “law of the case” issue).

The Court’s first August opinion, State v. Carter, ___ N.J. ___ (2021), was discussed here. That covers the Court’s output for August, to date. There are still some cases yet to be decided this Term. Stay tuned for more.