Attorneys’ Ignorance of New Jersey’s eCourts System Is No Defense to Failure to Follow the Amended New Jersey Court Rules
By Jeremy J. Zacharias, Esq.*
In the age of e-discovery and electronic filing, attorneys must be cognizant of the ever-changing use of technology and the amendments to the court rules to factor in modern filing standards. Cuomo v. TSI Ridgewood, LLC, d/b/a New York Sports Club, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1164 (N.J.Super. App. Div. May 21, 2019) concerned the use of the eCourts system in New Jersey and the danger of a future malpractice lawsuit due to an attorney’s failure to use the mandatory electronic filing system.
This appeal concerned the failure of the defendant, TSI Ridgewood, LLC, to file a demand for trial de novo and pay the required fee following a mandatory arbitration in a personal injury matter. TSI Ridgewood appealed from two April 13, 2018, Law Division orders: one enforcing the arbitration award and entering judgment against defendant and the other denying the defendant’s motion for leave to file a demand for trial de novo. TSI Ridgewood also appealed a June 8, 2018, order denying its motion for reconsideration.
New Jersey Statutes Annotated 2A:23A-20 and Rule 4:21A-1 “mandate the arbitration of all non-automobile negligence personal injury actions except for professional malpractice claims.” New Jersey Statutes Annotated 2A:23A-26 mandates the filing of a trial de novo demand within 30 days of the filing of the arbitration decision. The purpose of Rule 4:21A-6(b)(1) “is to require a prompt demand for a trial de novo in cases subject to mandatory arbitration.”
On June 9, 2017, a notice to the Bar advised attorneys in New Jersey of the amendment to Rule 4:21A-6(c) which states:
The Supreme Court by Order dated May 30, 2017, adopted amendments to paragraph (c) of [Rule] 4:21A-6 so as to remove reference in the rule to any particular method of payment for the trial de novo fee. The rule amendments, which are appended to this notice, will permit the payment of trial de novo filing fees in eCourts Civil by attorney collateral account (Judiciary Charge System (JACS) account).
In Cuomo, the arbitrator filed a net award of $200,000 in favor of the plaintiff, Helena Cuomo, on January 31, 2018. The time for the defendant to file a trial de novo demand and pay the $200 fee expired 30 days later—March 2, 2018. The defense counsel, who had a Judiciary Account Charge System (JACS), claimed that he “was confused about how the $200 fee was to be paid to the court,” but he never contacted the court to determine the proper procedure. Instead, the attorney sent the trial de novo demand to the clerk of the civil division by Federal Express on February 13, 2018, along with a check in the amount of $200 made payable to the Superior Court of New Jersey. A copy was also sent to the plaintiff.
On March 19, 2018, the plaintiff filed a motion to confirm the arbitration award. The defendant filed a cross-motion for leave to file a trial de novo demand. Defense counsel claimed that it was not until after the plaintiff filed her motion that he first became aware that the court had not processed his $200 check.
The trial court entered two orders on April 13, 2018: one confirmed the arbitration award and entered judgment, and the other denied the defendant’s motion for leave to file a trial de novo demand.
On appeal, the defendant contended that his payment of the $200 fee by check within the 30-day period conformed to Rule 4:21A-6(c). The defendant argued that when amending the Rule, the Supreme Court never indicated that JACS accounts are the exclusive payment method for trial de novo fees. Rather, the court amended the Rule to remove reference to any particular method of payment in order to allow for alternative methods of payment, including JACS accounts. The Appellate Division rejected this argument, noting that even if payment by check were still a proper method of payment under the amended Rule 4:21A-6(c), the check was non-conforming because it was improperly made payable to the “Superior Court of New Jersey,” and not to the “Treasurer, State of New Jersey.”
As of October 16, 2017, an attorney must file papers electronically in a Bergen County Civil Part matter through eCourts. Therefore, the Appellate Division held that the defendant’s filing of the trial de novo demand via Federal Express was improper and that the clerk properly rejected and returned the documents submitted, which included the $200 check.
The Appellate Division further held that there was no compliance with N.J.S.A. 2A:23A-20 to -30 and Rule 4:21A-6, let alone substantial compliance. Nine months prior to the expiration of the 30-day period in this matter, the New Jersey Bar was notified of mandatory eCourts filing and fee payment requirements. The eCourts filing system became mandatory in the Bergen County vicinage nearly four months before the expiration of the 30-day period. Further, the defendant’s filing of the de novo demand and payment of the fee did not comply with the mandatory eCourts filing and payment requirements. The defendant attorney received appropriate notice of the filing and payment deficiencies and had time within the 30-day period to contact the court to ascertain the proper procedure and cure those deficiencies. However, the defendant took no steps to do so and provided no reasonable explanation why there was no strict compliance with the statute and rule.
This case is of utmost importance to defense attorneys, especially in the age of eCourts and further utilization of technology in litigation. New Jersey courts will not give attorneys leeway to plead ignorance of the amended rules. Attorneys not adhering to the new rules and use of eCourts will be subject to reprimand by the court and possible malpractice claims by a client for failure to follow court rules.
*Jeremy is an associate in our Mount Laurel, New Jersey office. He can be reached at 856.779.6103 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Defense Digest, Vol. 25, No. 3, September 2019. Defense Digest is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2019 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact email@example.com.