Trial Courts May Not Take Away a Jury Trial as a Sanction for a Rule Violation

Williams v. American Auto Logistics, 226 N.J. 117 (2016).  Parties who fail to follow procedural rules are a source of frustration to busy trial judges.  As Justice Fernandez-Vina noted in today’s opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court, courts have “a panoply of sanctions in [their] arsenal” to redress violations of procedural rules.  In this Special Civil Part case, which plaintiff originally filed pro se, the Court stated that striking a jury demand is not one of the weapons available in that arsenal.

Plaintiff filed his case pro se.  He failed to submit papers that Rule 4:25-7 required, including certain pretrial disclosures and jury instructions.  As a sanction for that failure, the trial court struck plaintiff’s right to a jury, which arose under Rule 6:5-3 because defendant had made a jury demand and plaintiff did not consent to withdrawal of that demand.

Plaintiff lost the bench trial that followed.  He then got counsel and appealed (actually, this was the second appeal in the case, but for present purposes, the first appeal need not be discussed).  Plaintiff argued that striking the jury demand was improper and that, in any event, Rule 4:25-7, which led to the sanction, was inapplicable in the Special Civil Part.  The Appellate Division rejected both of those arguments and affirmed.  The Supreme Court granted review and reversed on both counts.

Justice Fernandez-Vina noted that “New Jersey has upheld the importance of jury trials in constitutions that date back to the origins of our nation.”  He cited cases that reiterated “the strength of our commitment to protect the right to a jury.”  He concluded that “[l]oss of a constitutional right should not be wielded as a penalty.  We hold that procedural defects in a litigant’s case cannot trump our constitutional mandate.”  The Court cautioned, however, that its decision today did not expand the right to a jury trial or in any way intend “to interfere with the expansive discretion that a trial court wields in managing its docket.”

Justice Fernandez-Vina then addressed whether Rule 4:25-7 even applies in the Special Civil Part.  He carefully went through the structure of the New Jersey Court Rules.  Rule 4:1 states that “except as otherwise provided” in Part VI rules (those that begin with “6:”), which govern the Special Civil Part, Part IV rules (those that begin with “4:”) apply in that court.  Rule 6:4-2 states that “[t]he pretrial conference procedure provided by Rule 4:25-1 to -6, inclusive,” omitting Rule 4:25-7.  Applying principles of statutory interpretation, which are also applicable to “rule construction,” Justice Fernandez-Vina ruled that the more specific Rule 6:4-2, which implicitly excluded Rule 4:25-7 from applicability to the Special Civil Part, controlled.  Rule 4:25-7 was therefore inapplicable in the Special Civil Part.  Comments by the Supreme Court Committee on Special Civil Part Practice buttressed that conclusion.

The case was remanded for a new trial, before a jury.