A health club is on the hook for a $200,000 arbitration award after its lawyer failed to use New Jersey’s eCourts system to electronically file its demand for a trial de novo and to pay the filing fee, the Appellate Division has ruled.
The appeals court affirmed orders enforcing an arbitration award to a plaintiff who suffered an injury at a New York Sports Club and denying the club’s motion for leave to file a demand for trial de novo.
The court gave the health club’s lawyer, Eric Evans of Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani in Florham Park, notice of his failure to comply with mandatory eCourts filing and payment requirements with sufficient time to contact the court and ascertain the proper filing procedure, the appeals court said. But Evans did not do so, and gave no reasonable explanation for his failure to comply with the statute and court rules, the appeals court said.
Lawyers in the Law Division, Civil Part in Bergen County were required to use eCourts to file papers and pay the required fee through their Judiciary Account Charge System as of Oct. 16, 2017. In the present case, an arbitrator filed a net award of $200,000 in favor of plaintiff Helena Cuomo on Jan. 31, 2018.
Cuomo sued after tripping over an exercise bench at one of the defendant’s clubs and sustaining fractures of the left wrist and elbow, torn cartilage of the left knee and herniated discs in the spine.
Evans had until March 2, 2018, to file a trial de novo demand and pay the $200 filing fee. The attorney claimed he was unsure about how the $200 fee was to be paid to the court, but he did not contact the court to ascertain the proper procedure, Appellate Division Judges Marie Simonelli and Lisa Firko said. He instructed his secretary to file the trial de novo demand and submit payment after ascertaining the proper payment procedure. The secretary was herself unsure about how to file a trial de novo demand and to pay the fee, but she never contacted the court to learn the proper procedure, the appeals court said.
The secretary sent the trial de novo demand to the Civil Division clerk via FedEx along with a check for $200, made out to Superior Court of New Jersey on Feb. 13, 2018. Evans signed the transmittal letter. On Feb. 21, the secretary received notice from the clerk that the documents were rejected because all documents filed by an attorney or law firm had to be filed through eCourts.
The secretary never told Evans about the notice, but on Feb. 21 she attempted to transmit the trial de novo demand through eCourts, but submitted the document for filing as an arbitration award, rather than a trial de novo demand. On Feb. 23, the court sent all parties a deficiency notice stating that the payment was missing. The notice advised, “for questions, please contact the Superior Court of New Jersey Civil Division in county of venue.”
When Evans asked the secretary about the deficiency notice, she told him the $200 fee had already been submitted to the court. Neither of them contacted the court to check on the status of the payment or logged on to eCourts to view the case jacket, the appeals court said.
On March 19, 2018, which was 17 days after the deadline to file for a trial de novo, the plaintiff’s lawyer filed a motion to confirm the arbitration award. Evans filed a cross-motion for leave to file a trial de novo demand. He claimed it was not until after the plaintiff’s motion to confirm the award was filed that he became aware the court had not cashed the $200 check.
On April 13, 2018, Superior Court Judge Christine Farrington filed orders confirming the arbitration award and denying the defendant’s motion for leave to file a trial de novo demand.
On appeal, Simonelli and Firko rejected claims by Evans and Peter Siachos of Gordon Rees that their client never received specific notice that the payment was nonconforming. R. 1:5-6(c) of the Rules of Court says that a notice that a filing did not conform to court rules is not required to specify why the papers did not qualify, Simonelli and Firko said in an unsigned opinion. The court’s Feb. 23, 2018, notice said there was a “payment missing.”
Evans and Siachos also claimed on appeal that their firm substantially complied with the court rule concerning a request for trial de novo after arbitration. Simonelli and Firko rejected that claim. The substantial compliance doctrine has been applied to relax the 30-day deadline for service of a timely filed trial de novo demand, but in the present case there was a failure to file, not a failure to serve, a trial de novo demand and pay the requisite fee, Simonelli and Firko said.
To be relieved from a failure to timely file a trial de novo demand and pay the fee requires a showing of extraordinary circumstances, a standard not met in the present case. At oral argument on the appeal, the defense lawyers conceded that they did not satisfy the extraordinary circumstances doctrine, the panel said.
Evans and Siachos did not respond to a request for comment on the ruling. Suzanne Smith of Cillick & Smith in Hackensack, who represented plaintiff Cuomo, also did not respond to a request for comment.