The Anniversary of Hodgson v. Applegate

On this date in 1959, the Supreme Court decided Hodgson v. Applegate, 31 N.J. 29 (1959). Over sixty years later, that opinion is still cited with regularity in cases applying Court Rules relating to post-judgment motions and appeals.

The case arose from plaintiff’s claim that defendants had breached an agreement to lease a gas station to plaintiff and had fraudulently concealed the terms of an existing lease on that premises. Plaintiff won a jury verdict for $8,500 in damages.

Defendants did not timely move for a new trial. Nor did they appeal the jury verdict. Instead, 34 days after entry of the judgment (within the time to appeal the judgment), defendants filed a motion to set aside the jury verdict under R.R. 4:62-2, the predecessor Court Rule to what is now Rule 4:50-1. Defendants asserted that the verdict had been obtained by fraud, and that defendants had newly-discovered evidence that would probably alter the judgment against them. The trial court denied that motion.

Defendants appealed that ruling to the Appellate Division. That court determined that the alleged fraud and new evidence should have been brought to the trial court’s attention before the jury issued its verdict. Thus, the trial court had not abused its discretion in denying defendants’ motion.

But two of the three Appellate Division judges found that under the particular facts, “justice will best be served by considering defendants’ present application as an appeal from the original judgment.” The majority held that there were errors in the conduct of the trial and in the jury charge of such magnitude as to constitute “an extreme departure from the proper functioning of the adjudicative process” that caused “manifest injustice” to defendants. They reversed the judgment and remanded for a new trial.

Plaintiff went to the Supreme Court, arguing not that the trial was fair but that, procedurally, defendants could not have their appeal from the denial of their post-trial motion treated as an appeal from the original judgment. In a unanimous opinion by Justice Proctor, the Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division.

In a lengthy and scholarly discussion that discussed cases under the parallel Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) and ranged back to nineteenth century English law, the Court concluded that trial errors did not properly invoke the trial court’s discretionary powers under R.R. 4:62-2. But Justice Proctor acknowledged that “an eminent authority,” Moore’s Federal Practice, had endorsed the view of Federal Rule 60(b) that defendants took in the Hodgson case. It was thus “understandable” that defendants’ counsel would believe that a motion under R.R. 4:62-2 was a valid way to preserve appellate rights for the errors that defendants asserted in that motion and on their eventual appeal.

Plaintiff objected that affirming the Appellate Division would deprive him of vested rights in his judgment. But Justice Proctor noted that rights in a judgment do not vest until the appeal period runs out, and defendants filed their motion eleven days before the 45-day appeal period would have run. The finality of judgments is important, but finality “is not an absolute rule, and must be weighed in the balance with the equally salutary principle that justice should be done in every case.” Since plaintiff had no right to rely on a not yet final judgment, “the principle of finality is not impaired by considering the present case as though a timely appeal had been taken from the original judgment.”

The Court thus upheld the Appellate Division’s ruling. But since the substantive issues of defects in the trial had not been presented to the Court, Justice Proctor carefully stated that the Court expressed no opinion on those issues.