In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact on New Jersey, the state Supreme Court has issued a tolling order allowing more time to meet filing deadlines.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner ordered on Nov. 9 that in computing time periods for purposes of court rules or statutes of limitation, the span from Oct. 29 — the day the storm hit — through Nov. 16 “shall be deemed the same as legal holidays.”
Documents that had to be filed during those three weeks will be treated as on time if they are filed by Nov. 19. [Full text of order here.]
Rabner’s order “consolidates, extends and supersedes” three orders the court issued on Nov. 1, 2 and 5 that pushed back deadlines only to the date of issuance and only in the hardest-hit counties: Atlantic, Bergen, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Somerset, Sussex and Warren.
Some of those counties were shore communities that saw massive flooding and property damage, while others have had to contend with widespread power outages from downed trees that blocked roads, shut down public transit and closed offices, often shutting off attorneys’ access to their phone systems, files and email.
State courts were shut for days and in some counties, did not reopen until the next week.
The Nov. 9 order was made public hours after Amos Gern, president of the New Jersey Association for Justice in 2007-08, wrote to the judiciary complaining about its storm response. [Full text of letter here.]
Gern, of Roseland’s Starr Gern Davison and Rubin, wrote that he was “extremely dismayed” by the “cavalier manner” in which “our court system, including its litigants, court personnel, judiciary, and members of the bar, has been treated during this difficult crisis.”
Residents “remain in total disarray resulting from destruction of their homes, communities and businesses,” he wrote. “Yet our judicial system has been unable to make the most basic decisions that are needed in a time of crisis,” providing “piecemeal and late notifications” of court closings and other disruptions.
Although thousands of people were displaced and “businesses and law firms suffered unprecedented destruction,” the state courts failed to address “these emergent circumstances in a broad, comprehensive and logical manner,” said Gern.
His letter, addressed to Rabner, the other justices and acting Administrative Director of the Courts Glenn Grant, contrasted the state “hodgepodge of notifications and orders” with the approach taken by federal courts.
In a pair of standing orders issued on Nov. 1, Chief U.S. District Judge Jerome Simandle extended civil filing deadlines until Nov. 7 and pushed deadlines to Nov. 13 for criminal cases. He moved the deadline to Nov. 19 for criminal cases requiring action by a petit or grand jury.
Gern concluded by imploring the judiciary to “adopt one single order addressing the entire state” that would postpone deadlines until Nov. 12.
He is not ready to take credit for the Nov. 9 order, which he did not see until Monday, and he calls the timing “quite a coincidence.”
He says that he is “not faulting anyone” and that the court system “just had to catch up with what was going on” and “needed to see the impact on the practitioner in a more specific way.”
The main idea he sought to convey was the need for uniformity as opposed to “disjointed and disparate orders” applying to different courts.
The fact that the Supreme Court allowed even more time than he sought shows it recognized the breadth of the crisis, Gern adds. He lost power at his home and his office for a week but he says his letter was motivated by “things I was hearing from other attorneys and colleagues, primarily the personal injury bar,” who Gern says are most affected in terms of deadlines.
For example, after court arbitration in such cases, each side has 30 days to request a trial de novo, he points out.
Asked whether Gern’s letter prompted the Nov. 9 tolling order, judiciary spokeswoman Winnie Comfort said: “We initially focused on the affected counties where courts were closed for an extended period. Once the initial crisis was addressed, it became obvious that there were pockets of court users all over the state who had been affected by the storm.
“Friday’s order was a logical extension of the initial orders targeted at certain counties and came on the heels of hearing from judges who already were liberally granting extensions to those who needed them. We also heard comments from members of the bar,” she added.
One of the judges ready to liberally grant extensions is Superior Court Judge Edward Gannon in Sussex County, one of the areas covered by the prior orders.
He distributed “Hurricane Rules” to the local bar association, saying he would be easy on deadlines and would hold telephone conferences to spare people a trip to the courthouse.
New Jersey State Bar Association President Kevin McCann, of Chance & McCann in Bridgeton, calls the statewide tolling a sensible move, given that many lawyers practice in areas beyond where their offices are located.
John Menzel of Point Pleasant, chairman of the State Bar’s Municipal Court Practice Section, calls the order “a rather elegant solution to a monumental problem.”
He had an appeal from a municipal court decision that was due Nov. 2 but his office did not regain power until Nov. 8 and its computer system was not running until Nov. 9.
He says the 20 days to file such an appeal cannot be enlarged under court rules but his thought was to file it anyway and “hope for the best.”
As he finished writing the brief, he spotted the order on the judiciary web site. “It saved a potentially meritorious appeal from being dismissed because of the storm,” he comments.
No similar order exists for the local courts, but Grant, the AOC acting director, circulated a memo to municipal judges and court administrators on Nov. 5 asking them “to be sensitive to the challenges currently being faced by our court users.”
Grant wrote, “I trust that you will give due consideration before issuing an administrative warrant for someone’s failure to appear or failure to make a payment, particularly for defendants who live in those areas hardest hit by the storm.”
Menzel says he had dates scheduled in two local courts, Manalapan, where the prosecutor readily adjourned, and Denville, where the court administrator refused to do so but the judge agreed.
He says he has cases in some courts, like Seaside Heights and Ship Bottom, that have been destroyed or severely damaged and the issue is not so much when a case will be heard but where the court can convene to even talk about scheduling.