Motions in Limine Cannot be Used as a Last-Minute, Short Notice Substitute for a Motion for Summary Judgment

Cho v. Trinitas Regional Medical Center, 443 N.J. Super. 461 (App. Div. 2015).  In this medical malpractice case, the only remaining defendant, a doctor, filed what was labeled as “motions in limine” on the day before a jury was to be selected.  But those motions, which included a 16-page brief and a total of 260 pages of materials, sought dismissal of the entire complaint.  The key argument was that plaintiffs’ proofs of economic loss were “too speculative to present to a jury.”  Plaintiff responded on the following day.  The Law Division granted dismissal.  On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed, with Judge Espinosa writing the panel’s opinion.

Judge Espinosa was highly critical of this procedure.  She laid out at length the difference between motions in limine, which is defined as “a pretrial request that certain inadmissible evidence not be referred to or offered at trial” and normally “will not have a dispositive impact on a litigant’s entire case,” and a motion for summary judgment, which “will result in the dismissal of a plaintiff’s case or the suppression of a defendant’s defenses.”

Where dismissal or suppression is sought, the provisions of Rule 4:46, the summary judgment rule, must be followed.  Those required provisions include the necessity for 28 days’ notice of the motion, a statement of undisputed material facts by the movant, supported by record citations, and the other safeguards of Rule 4:46, including the mandate that summary judgment motions be returnable no later than thirty days before the scheduled trial date, absent good cause.  None of those procedures were followed here, where the motion was filed right before trial, plaintiff had to respond on only one day’s notice and the movant did not supply a statement of undisputed material facts.  Those protections, especially the 28-day notice provision, are very important, as Judge Espinosa observed in tracing the history that led to the rule change that extended the response time on summary judgment from a “patently unfair” eight days to 28 days.

Defendant argued that the motion could not have been made earlier because, among other things, the associate who had been handling the case had left defendant’s law firm.  Judge Espinosa rejected that as “unexceptional” and not sufficient to show “good cause” to allow a belated summary judgment motion.  Nor did Rule 1:1-2, which permits the relaxation of other rules in appropriate circumstances, save defendant.  That rule should be “sparingly resorted to,” and was not available here, where Rule 4:46 spoke explicitly to the proper summary judgment procedures.

Judge Espinosa went on to find that plaintiff had been deprived of due process.  “[A]bsent extraordinary circumstances or the opposing party’s consent, the consideration of an untimely summary judgment motion at trial and resulting dismissal of a complaint deprives a plaintiff of due process of law.”

The panel’s opinion is one of the relatively few published decisions that discusses motions in limine.  Though Judge Espinosa stated that such motions “should be granted only sparingly,” with evidence issues instead generally left for decision at trial, trial judges retain discretion to rule on the admissibility of evidence before trial.  Decisions on evidence are, in general, entrusted to the discretion of trial judges.  The Appellate Division’s decision in this case clarifies the nature of motions in limine and prevents their abuse, while continuing to permit trial judges to exercise appropriate discretion on such motions.