Two Decisions About When Judgments Appealed From Are Final

Appellate Division opinions designated as not for publication do not often address legal issues such as whether and when a judgment under appeal is final. But today, the Appellate Division issued two opinions that touch on that subject in different contexts.

Williams v. County of Middlesex, 2021 N.J. Super Unpub. LEXIS 1580 (App. Div. July 28, 2021), was a suit by plaintiff corrections officers against a number of defendants. Plaintiffs alleged that they had been physically and emotionally injured, and had been subjected to disciplinary charges, after they had intervened in a fight between a prisoner being treated for his diabetes by one defendant (“CRG”) and another prisoner. Plaintiffs claimed that CRG had been negligent in its treatment of the diabetic prisoner.

In 2015, CRG won a motion to dismiss, which was granted with prejudice. Plaintiffs unsuccessfully sought leave to appeal that ruling.

On September 18, 2018, the remaining parties settled the case. All counsel and a Law Division judge signed a pre-printed form stating that the case had been settled and dismissed after being set for trial. But there was a dispute (not detailed by the Appellate Division but apparently involving
“either the manner in which payment was to be made, or the language of the releases,” according to the opinion) as to language documenting the settlement. The non-CFG defendants filed a motion to enforce the settlement, and plaintiffs filed a motion to reinstate their case.

On March 15, 2019, the Law Division denied plaintiffs’ motion to reinstate. The judge said that there was “no doubt” on September 18, 2018 that “we were dismissing all the claims.” The judge deferred ruling on the motion to enforce pending resolution of the dispute about the settlement language.

On January 20, 2020, the Law Division entered an order stating that “[i]f not already done, the [s]ettlement [a]greement attached hereto as Exhibit ‘A’ is the final settlement in this case and shall be executed by all [d]efendants within five . . days of this [o]rder.” On March 24, 2020, plaintiffs then filed a notice of appeal as to the 2015 dismissal of CRG. CRG moved to dismiss the appeal as untimely, but that motion was denied in an order entered on June 18, 2020 that offered no accompanying explanation.

Plaintiffs offered a number of arguments about the merits, but the panel dismissed the appeal because ” the time within which to file the appeal has long since passed.” The panel stated that the matter was settled
September 10, 2018.” The disputed documentation details did not “relate to substance” or “require court intervention other than to enforce the settlement.” Thus, the disposition of the case was final as of September 18, 2018, and plaintiffs needed to file any appeal within 45 days of that date, which did not occur.

The panel observed that “[p]laintiffs themselves believed the matter had been dismissed with finality—otherwise no motion to reinstate would have been filed.” The court distinguished Smith v. Jersey Cent. Power & Light Co., 421 N.J. Super. 374 (App. Div. 2011), where the court concluded that a judgment that left open the issue of taxed costs was not final until that issue was resolved. The panel highlighted “the distinction between [Jersey Central] a judgment that appears final on its face, but is not appealable of right, and the contrary situation here, where the judgment, although leaving the details to be resolved between contentious parties, left nothing for decision by the court.”

Finally, the Appellate Division rebuffed plaintiffs’ argument that the June 18, 2020 order that denied CFG’;s motion to dismiss the appeal was dispositive. In that order, “no explanation is given in the supplemental section. But the abbreviated process on a motion is significantly different from the decisional process on the merits after a matter is fully briefed.” With “the benefit of oral argument by counsel and substantial briefing,” the court was free to reach a different conclusion.

Sirakides v. Grewal, 2021 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1581 (App. Div. July 28, 2021), involved plaintiff’s challenge to the defendant Attorney General’s denial, by letters, of three separate recommendations that plaintiff, a 20-year veteran New Jersey State Police officer, be promoted to sergeant. “Each denial letter from the Attorney General contained the following language, ‘[f]ollowing a review of your promotional package and disciplinary history, I did not approve your promotion pursuant to N.J.S.A. 53:1-5.2 based upon your individual disciplinary history.’ No other explanation or notice was provided in the letters.”

Plaintiff filed a declaratory judgment action in the Law Division. Defendants moved to dismiss, and the Law Division “found the Attorney General’s three denial letters each constituted the final decisions of an administrative agency or officer, and issued an order transferring the matter to the Appellate Division pursuant to Rule 2:2-3(a)(2).” That rule requires that appeals from final agency action be filed with the Appellate Division, not a trial level court.

Plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Division, arguing both that he should have been promoted and that the Law Division had jurisdiction because the denial letters were not final agency decisions. Defendants were granted permission to amplify the denial letters, which was then done. Today, the Appellate Division rejected both of plaintiff’s arguments.

On the jurisdictional issue, plaintiff had argued that “the denial letters contain no factual or legal conclusions, no statement indicating the letters are to be considered final agency decisions, nor any language advising Sirakides that he has any right to seek review of the decision. He contends the letters are merely ‘polite refusals,’ not final decisions, and consequently we have no jurisdiction over Sirakides’ claims.”

The Appellate Division disagreed. “‘A final agency decision has . . . been described as one in which the agency communicates with ‘unmistakable written notice the finality’ of its decision.’ Silviera-Francisco v. Bd of Educ., 224 N.J. 126, 137 (2016) (citing In re CAFRA Permit No. 87-0959-5, 152 N.J. 287, 301 (1997)).” The Attorney General’s letters, in the context of a “well-established protocol for applying for promotion to sergeant,” met the Silviera-Francisco standard. And if that were not so, the amplification filed with the Appellate Division removed any doubt. The panel distinguished on their facts Silviera-Francisco and DeNike v. Board of Trustees, 34 N.J. 430 (1961), on which plaintiff relied.

The question of which decisions are final and which are not can be a complex one. It arises in many different contexts, as today’s two very different decision show. It is wise to analyze that issue carefully in order to avoid being precluded from appealing due to lateness, as in Williams, or filing one’s appeal in the wrong court, as in Sirakides.