Referring to a Party’s Brief Instead of Offering Findings and Conclusions Draws Judge Fuentes’s Ire

Estate of Doerfler v. Federal Ins. Co., 454 N.J. Super. 298 (App. Div. 2018).  This opinion by Judge Fuentes today is one of the shortest published opinions of the Appellate Division.  It deals with breach of contract and bad faith claims against the defendant insurer in the context of damage caused by Super-Storm Sandy.  On cross-motions for summary judgment, after an “active and probing discussion” of an exclusion in the insurance policy, the Law Division ruled for the insurer.  But instead of making findings and conclusions in support of that decision, the Law Division’s Order stated that the court was ruling for the insurer “for the reasons set forth in defendant[s’] motion papers.”

Judge Fuentes found that the panel was “constrained to reverse and remand this matter to the Law Division, not because we conclude there are material issues of facts which should be decided by a jury, or because we disagree with the motion judge’s legal analysis or conclusions of law; we reach this decision because the motion judge failed to make any findings of facts or reach any conclusions of law, as mandated by Rule 1:7-4(a).”  He observed that Rule 1:7-4(a) states that a motion judge “shall, by an opinion or memorandum decision, either written or oral, find the facts and state its conclusions of law thereon … on every motion decided by a written order that is appealable as of right” (emphasis by Judge Fuentes).

There are numerous cases that say that Rule 1:7-4(a) means what it says.  Judge Fuentes cited one that noted that “[t]he obligation to make specific findings on summary judgment motions in accordance with [Rule] 1:7-4 has been explicitly stated in [Rule] 4:46 since 1972.”  He concluded by saying that the requirements of findings and conclusions “are unambiguous and cannot be carried out by the motion judge by a nebulous allusion to ‘the reasons set forth in defendant[s’] motion papers.”

Trial level judges are busy, and there is a temptation to omit findings and conclusions in the interest of keeping up with caseloads.  But it is fundamental that findings and conclusions cannot be skipped.  This sort of thing must happen more often than we know, since today’s opinion ordinarily would not have merited publication.  It undoubtedly was designated for publication to send a message to trial level judges that the Appellate Division is unhappy with judges who do not follow Rule 1:7-4(a).