The Second Half of August

As usually occurs with the current Term nearing its end, the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division have issued relatively few opinions in the second half of August. Here are summaries of those opinions (in addition to this one, which I argued for the successful plaintiffs):

Rivera v. The Valley Hospital, Inc., 252 N.J. 1 (2022). The issue in this case, which was before the Supreme Court on leave to appeal, was whether plaintiffs’ evidence in support of punitive damages was sufficient to defeat a defense motion to dismiss the punitive damages claim. As Justice Pierre-Louis noted in her opinion for a unanimous Court, under the Punitive Damages Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.15(a), plaintiffs needed to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that defendants’ acts or omissions were either “actuated by actual malice” or were “accompanied by wanton and willful disregard of persons who foreseeably might be harmed.” The Court found that plaintiffs had not met that standard.

State v. Bookman, 252 N.J. 600 (2022). Judge Fuentes wrote this opinion for a unanimous Court. The issue was whether it was proper, under the “hot pursuit” doctrine, for police, who had a valid arrest warrant, to pursue defendant into a neighboring residence. Evaluating “the totality of the circumstances,” the Court held that the action of the police violated the protections of both the United States and New Jersey Constitutions regarding warrantless searches.

State v. A.L.A., 252 N.J. 580 (2022). The Court was again unanimous in this case, in which Justice Pierre-Louis authored the opinion. The matter was before the Court due to a dissent in the Appellate Division. The question presented, as Justice Pierre-Louis put it, was “whether a jury could have understood that the affirmative defense of reasonable corporal punishment applied to both a child endangerment charge and a simple assault charge where the reasonable corporal punishment instruction was provided only in the instructions for the child endangerment offense.” Agreeing with the Appellate Division dissenter, the Court held that the jury could not have so understood. The Court vacated defendant’s conviction for simple assault and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Sanjuan v. School District of West New York, 473 N.J. Super. 416 (App. Div. 2022). With Judge Sumners writing the panel’s opinion, the Appellate Division addressed an appeal by the plaintiff, an assistant principal. She was the subject of tenure charges that ultimately went before an arbitrator. The arbitrator sustained the tenure charges, demoted plaintiff from assistant principal to fourth-grade teacher, and ruled that plaintiff was not entitled to backpay withheld from her under N.J.S.A. 18A:6-14 for a suspension without pay period imposed upon the Board’s certification of the charges. The Law Division confirmed the arbitration award and plaintiff appealed. Addressing these “issues of first impression,” Judge Sumners upheld the denial of the backpay, but ruled that the arbitrator lacked authority to demote plaintiff. Instead, the arbitrator could only reduce her salary. The panel ordered her reinstated to her assistant principal position and remanded to the arbitrator to decide “to what extent, if any, Sanjuan’s salary should be further reduced through suspending her without pay or withholding salary increments, or a combination thereof.”

Kumar v. Piscataway Twp. Council, 473 N.J. Super. 463 (App. Div. 2022). This was a 2-1 decision, meaning that the case can go to the Supreme Court on an appeal as of right, based on the dissent. In an opinion by Judge Currier, joined by Judge DeAlmeida, the Appellate Division ruled that the Township was not statutorily authorized to approve a resolution to place non-binding public opinion questions before voters when initiative petitions concerning the identical issues were on the same ballot. That ruling affirmed the Law Division’s decision that the resolutions were invalid. Judge Smith was the dissenter.

State v. Hahn, 473 N.J. Super. 349 (App. Div. 2022). This opinion by Judge Messano in this death by auto case addressed issues involving Miranda warnings and jury instructions. The Appellate Division rejected defendant’s argument that a statement that he made to New Jersey State Police detectives should have been suppressed. But the panel held that it was plain error for the trial judge not to have charged reckless manslaughter as a lesser included offense to aggravated manslaughter, and that the failure to give that charge “also deprived the jury of an opportunity to understand distinctions in the level of recklessness required to convict defendant of either manslaughter charge versus recklessness that is an element of vehicular homicide.” As a result, the Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s convictions for vehicular homicide but reversed the convictions for aggravated manslaughter and remanded for further proceedings.