A Rare Opinion Granting a Motion for Summary Disposition

Spinelli v. Echeverry Industries, LLC, 2012 WL 370666 (App. Div. Feb. 7, 2012).  Rule 2:8-3 authorizes parties on appeal to move for summary disposition of that appeal at any time.  It is not often that such motions get granted, however, and opinions doing so are relatively rare.  In this case, the Appellate Division (Judges Fuentes and Lihotz) issued a per curiam opinion granting a motion for summary disposition.  This must give hope to practitioners who seek to save time and expense by short-circuiting an appeal, although the facts were unusual enough that this decision may not be very useful in other cases, which is why it is not officially published.

Plaintiff had sold a bakery to defendants.  Defendants gave two promissory notes for payment.  Plaintiff later sued, asserting that defendants had failed to pay.  The parties went to mediation and settled the case on terms that required defendants to make certain scheduled payments and provided that if they did not do so, plaintiffs could enter a judgment against defendants for amounts unpaid plus an attorneys’ fee.  The court entered an order dismissing the case as settled.

When defendants failed to make timely payments, plaintiff went to court to enforce the settlement, acting in aid of litigant’s rights pursuant to Rule 1:10-3.  Defendants admitted that they had not paid on time.  Despite that, the Law Division denied plaintiffs’ motion to enforce the settlement, stating in the order that its ruling was “without prejudice.”  Plaintiffs appealed and then sought summary disposition in their favor.

Defendants first asserted that the appeal was improper because the lower court’s action was purportedly “without prejudice,” so that there was no final judgment.  The panel rejected that argument, noting that decisions on contempt motions are generally appealable as final and that there were no other issues left for the lower court to adjudicate.  Thus, the decision below was not interlocutory as defendants had argued.

The panel found this appeal ripe for summary disposition because the court below did not make any fact-findings “or engage in any discernable legal analysis.”  The judge did not decide whether defendants had breached the settlement agreement, whether that agreement was ambiguous, or whether there were circumstances that militated against strict enforcement of the agreement.  Moreover, there should have been an evidentiary hearing before any decision below, since there were contested issues of fact as to defendants’ compliance or ability to comply with the settlement agreement.  The panel summarily reversed and remanded for an evidentiary hearing and proper findings as required by Rule 1:7-4.

There was an additional wrinkle.  The submissions on behalf of all defendants in the Law Divisio were made by defendant Carlos Echeverry, a non-lawyer.  The panel found that he could represent himself but not the other defendants, his wife and a business entity.  There could have been a default judgment against the other defendants as a result.  Meanwhile, on appeal the defendants all seemed to be represented by counsel, the same attorney for all three defendants.