The “Square Corners” Doctrine

Estate of Taylor v. Director, Div. of Taxation, 422 N.J. Super. 336 (App. Div. 2011).  In FMC Stores v. Borough of Morris Plains, 100 N.J. 418 (1985), the Supreme Court announced the “square corners” doctrine.  That doctrine says, in essence, that in dealing with the public, government agencies must “turn square corners,” “comport itself with compunction and integrity,” and not “conduct itself so as to achieve or preserve any kind of bargaining or litigational advantage” over a member of the public.  As the Court observed, this means that “government may have to forego the freedom of action that private citizens may employ in dealing with one another.”

In Estate of Taylor, plaintiff asserted that the Division of Taxation had engaged in misleading conduct, so that the square corners doctrine dictated a ruling in plaintiff’s favor.  The Appellate Division, in an opinion by Judge Rodriguez, disagreed that the Division had done anything inequitable, and found the square corners doctrine applicable.

The square corners doctrine is not widely known.  It can be a useful weapon, on proper facts, in cases involving government agencies, especially when other doctrines, such as equitable estoppel, which the Supreme Court has said is rarely invocable against a government agency, are not available.  Square corners is somewhat analogous to New Jersey’s “fairness and rightness” doctrine, which I wrote about in a law review article, “New Jersey’s ‘Fairness and Rightness’ Doctrine,” 15 Rutgers L.J. 927 (1984).  That doctrine protects citizens against arbitrary government action and goes beyond the protections that the Constitution provides, as the Supreme Court and others have noted in citing that article.  Though square corners did not succeed for plaintiff in this case, that doctrine, and related ones such as “fairness and rightness,” should be kept in mind.