Last Week’s Published Opinions

Last week just flew by. So, belatedly, here are summaries of the week’s published opinions by the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division:

Graphnet, Inc. v. Retarus, Inc., ___ N.J. ___ (2022). This unanimous opinion by Justice Fernandez-Vina involved nominal damages and remittitur in a defamation case. Without objection, the jury was given a charge based on Model Civil Jury Charge 8.46D. That Model Charge was internally contradictory as to whether nominal damages could be awarded to compensate plaintiff. A jury awarded $0 in compensatory damages and $800,000 in nominal damages. The Law Division remitted the award to $500, but without plaintiff’s consent. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial on nominal damages only. On further review, the Supreme Court affirmed as modified. The Court agreed that remittitur without plaintiff’s consent was error. But the Court also required a new trial in which the jury is to be properly instructed on both actual and nominal damages. And the Court referred Model Charge 8.46D to the Committee on Model Civil Jury Charges to address the issues raised by this case.

Stewart v. New Jersey Turnpike Authority, ___ N.J. ___ (2022). Plaintiffs in this case were injured when they lost control of the motorcycle on which they were riding as they passed over a Garden State Parkway overpass. Plaintiffs originally asserted that they lost control when their motorcycle struck a piece of metal that jutted out of the roadway. However, at oral argument on defendants’ motion for summary judgment, they altered their theory to assert that improper paving of the roadway by defendants, not the jutting metal, had caused them to lose control. The Law Division refused to consider plaintiffs belatedly raised new theory and granted summary judgment for defendants based on Tort Claims Act immunity and, for the defendant asphalt contractor, derivative immunity. The Appellate Division reversed, but the Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Solomon reversed again and reinstated the summary judgment. The Law Division was correct to exclude plaintiffs’ new theory, the Court held, and in any event, plaintiffs’ evidence on their new theory did not establish a genuine issue of material fact that could have defeated summary judgment.

State v. Gonzalez, ___ N.J. ___ (2022). This was another opinion by Justice Solomon. In this assault and endangering the welfare of a child case, defendant, a nanny, was questioned by a detective after having been given Miranda warnings and having asked ” But now what do I do about an attorney and everything?” A jury convicted defendant and the Appellate Division affirmed the conviction. But the Supreme Court unanimously reversed, concluding that defendant’s question was “an ambiguous invocation of her right to counsel and that, under settled New Jersey law, the detective was required to cease questioning and clarify whether defendant was requesting counsel during the interview.” Justice Albin filed a concurring opinion that criticized the detective’s use of lies in his interview with defendant and suggested that the Court would need to consider whether such lying is constitutionally permissible.

State v. Ryan, ___ N.J. ___ (2022). Justice Solomon’s opinion in this case, unlike his others this week, did not command unanimity. Instead, the Court split 4-2 on the question of whether crimes committed by a defendant while under the age of eighteen can count as predicate offenses under the “Three Strikes Law,” which mandates a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a third-time offender, or whether that result was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the United States and New Jersey Constitutions. The majority (Chief Justice Rabner and Justices Patterson, Solomon, and Fernandez-Vina) found it constitutional to permit that result. Justice Albin, joined by Justice Pierre-Louis, dissented.

New Jersey State Police Benevolent Ass’n v. Murphy, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2022). This appeal involved challenges to Governor Murphy’s Executive Order No. 283, another directive occasioned by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As Judge Fisher’s opinion summarized that Executive Order, it required “among other things, that corrections officers – because of the nature of the facilities in which they work – present proof of vaccination by February 16, 2022, or face discipline, including the possibility of termination.” Police groups asserted that the Governor lacked authority to mandate vaccinations, acted arbitrarily and without tailoring the Executive order to the magnitude of the declared COVID-19 emergency, violated procedural requirements, and violated the constitutional rights of persons affected by the Executive Order. The Appellate Division, as the court of first instance, rebuffed all of those contentions and upheld the Executive Order.

Woodmont Properties, LLC v. Township of Westampton, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2022). Judge Fisher authored this opinion, too. The first paragraph of his opinion neatly encapsulates this case’s “long, strange trip in the trial court”:

Plaintiff Woodmont Properties, LLC contracted to purchase a large tract of undeveloped land from non-party Hovbros Burlington LLC. Defendant TD Bank, N.A., which held mortgages on the property, foreclosed and was the highest bidder at a sheriff’s sale. Although it was a long, strange trip in the trial court, we agree with the trial judge that plaintiff’s claim to a continuing interest in the property cannot be sustained because of the foreclosure sale, which cut off any further right plaintiff claims to have to purchase the property. In so holding, we reject the reported trial court decision in PNC Bank v. Axelsson, 373 N.J. Super. 186 (Ch. Div. 2004), which held to the contrary, because it is inconsistent with N.J.S.A. 2A:50-30 and out of step with the contrary holding of the State’s then highest court in Marcy v. Larkin, 99 N.J. Eq. 429, 430 (E. & A. 1926). But, while we conclude that this holding is fatal to plaintiff’s claim to a continuing property interest and its claims against the other defendants, we agree with plaintiff that its claim against TD Bank of tortiously interfering with its contractual rights is viable notwithstanding. We, therefore, affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.”

State v. Diaz, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2022). Judge Susswein’s opinion in this case upheld the suppression of defendant’s statements made while in police custody. The basis for that decision was that detectives “affirmatively misled defendant as to his ‘true status’ by providing a deliberately vague and incomplete answer to his question as to the reason why he was taken into custody.” As the Appellate Division elaborated, “[i]t is one thing for police to withhold information. It is another thing entirely for them to provide an explanation that creates or reinforces a false impression as to the seriousness of the sentence that a defendant is facing. Any such deception or trickery as to the true reason a defendant is taken into custody, whether made in response to a question posed by the defendant, as in this case, or made on the police interrogator’s own initiative, is an important circumstance to be considered as part of the totality of circumstances when determining whether the State has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant made a knowing and voluntary waiver of the right against self-incrimination.”