Condemnation Commissioners’ Award Becomes “Nugatory” Upon Appeal and Cannot be Reinstated

State, Comm’r of Transportation v. Shalom Money Street,LLC, 432 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 2013).  What happens to an award issued by condemnation commissioners for a taking when parties appeal that award to a court?  And when both parties appeal, and the court dismisses both appeals sua sponte, can the commissioners’ award simply be reinstated?  These were the questions that Judge Espinosa faced in her opinion for the court in this case.  She concluded that appeals render the commissioners’ award “nugatory,” and that the dismissal of the appeals does not revive the commissioners’ award.  Accordingly, the panel reversed the decision of the Law Division, which had purported to reinstate the commissioners’ award after the appeals were dismissed.

This was an unusual case in that both parties were in essentially the same position and made the same arguments on appeal.  Condemnation commissioners had issued an award of $9,000 as just compensation for the State’s taking of defendant’s property.  Both the State and defendant appealed that award.  Each party produced an expert report in support of its appeal, and the two sides each filed motions to bar the other side’s expert.  The Law Division granted both motions.  Since the parties needed expert testimony in order to try the issue of the value of the taking, they sought a 100-day adjournment to allow them to get new experts.  The Law Division denied the adjournment request and entered an order confirming the commissioners’ award, over the objection of both parties that it was improper to do so.  Both parties appealed, and the Appellate Division agreed with their position.

Judge Espinosa noted that, under N.J.S.A. 20:3-12(h) of the Eminent Domain Act, a commissioners’ award becomes a final judgment if it is not objected to within sixty days of its filing.  “Plainly, an appeal constitutes an objection to the award and, as a result, the commissioners’ award does not become a final judgment.”  On the contrary, “the filing of the appeal renders the commissioners’ award ‘nugatory.’  State v. N.J. Zinc Co., 40 N.J. 560, 573 (1963).  In short, there is no final judgment to be reinstated.”  The panel distinguished two published cases on which the Law Division had relied.  The Appellate Division declined even to discuss an unpublished decision cited by the judge below, citing the rule that unpublished opinions are not precedential.

The Law Division’s denial of an adjournment was reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard.  There was no evidence of dilatoriness or bad faith by either party, and the Law Division had given no reasons for denying the jointly requested adjournment.  The barring of both expert reports “stripped both parties of their ability to present a case as to the just compensation to be awarded.”  The parties agreed that 100 days were necessary to permit them to retain new experts and prepare the case as reconstituted with those experts.  In those circumstances, Judge Espinosa concluded that the denial of the adjournment was an abuse of discretion.  Accordingly, the panel remanded the case for entry of an order vacating the judgment and granting the adjournment request.