Administrative Closure of Case Does Not Necessarily Trigger Time to Appeal

McGlynn v. State of New Jersey, 434 N.J. Super. 23 (App. Div. 2014).  This was a negligence and wrongful death case.  Suit was brought against various defendants, including Jersey Central Power & Light, after a tree fell on a car in which the decedent and members of her family were riding, killing the decedent and injuring the other family members.  Plaintiffs argued that the tree was within JCP&L’s right of way, and that JCP&L bore responsibility for the fact that the tree fell.  The Law Division granted summary judgment for JCP&L (and another party, JAFLO, Inc.), and the Appellate Division, in an opinion by Judge Alvarez, affirmed.

But that was not the most interesting issue in the case, from an appellate practice perspective.  The more intriguing issue, and likely the reason why this decision was approved for publication, was whether plaintiffs’ appeal of the summary judgment in favor of JCP&L and JAFLO was timely.

The facts, naturally, were unusual.  The summary judgment order was interlocutory, since there were other defendants still in the case.  Plaintiffs sought leave to appeal the summary judgment order, but their motion was denied.  Meanwhile, plaintiffs settled their claims against the other defendants, the State of New Jersey and its Department of Transportation (“NJDOT”).  Plaintiffs’ counsel asked to have the case removed from the trial list, and the case was marked “closed” for administrative purposes in September 2011.  Seven months later, in April 2012, the court entered an order allocating the wrongful death settlement proceeds among the plaintiffs.

“No stipulation of dismissal was filed, however, until November 15, 2012.  The delay was occasioned by the exhaustion of the State’s calendar-year-2011 funds earmarked for payments of personal injury settlements.  Plaintiffs had an understanding with the State and NJDOT that no stipulation of dismissal would be filed until plaintiffs were paid the settlement proceeds, which did not occur until October 9, 2012.”  Within 45 days after November 15, 2012, plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal as to the JCP&L/JAFLO summary judgment order, which had become final by virtue of the settlements with the State and NJDOT.

JCP&L and JAFLO sought to dismiss the appeal as untimely, arguing that the time to appeal began to run in September 2011, when the Law Division marked the case “closed” and removed it from the active list.  They also argued that plaintiffs’  notification to the Law Division to cancel the trial date showed that the case was finally resolved at that time, so that the appeal period should have begun to run.  Judge Alvarez disagreed.  “[U]ntil the settlement funds were available, and the case [was] dismissed with prejudice, further litigation could have ensued.”  She agreed with plaintiffs that Straus v. Borough of Chatham, 316 N.J. Super. 28 (App. Div. 1998), which had held that the appeal period ran from the date of entry of a stipulation of dismissal, not the date of a settlement release, was controlling.  “That the case was marked closed for administrative purposes is simply not dispositive.”

Moreover, “[i]t was reasonable for plaintiffs to act cautiously, and delay the filing, until [the State] defendants were able to fund the promised payments.  The delay was occasioned by considerations related solely to the settlement with the State, and not from an attempt to manipulate the deadline for filing an appeal.”

This is a sound and practical decision that vindicates the purposes of the Court Rules while not depriving deserving parties of their right to appeal.  These plaintiffs lost their appeal on the merits, but it would have been wrong to bar them from appealing at all in these circumstances.