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Reeves v. City of Jersey City

Decided: April 9, 1953.

ELIZABETH M. REEVES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE CITY OF JERSEY CITY, ET ALS., DEFENDANTS



Civil action. On separate trial of legal issues.

Drewen, J.c.c.

Drewen

Plaintiff claims to be the widow of the late Edward C. Reeves, who in his lifetime had been a member of the Jersey City Police Department; and as such widow she sues for the payment of pension benefits by the defendant Fund. The case is here again after a reversal by the Appellate Division. The appeal was taken from the decision by this court upon a separate trial of the legal issues raised by the pleadings, pursuant to Rules 3:42-2, 3:30-2 (now 3:16-17) and 5:2-1. These issues are embodied in the respective defenses of res judicata predicated upon (a) a suit in the Second District Court of Jersey City, (b) the dismissal of a bill in Chancery, and (c) determination of a suit brought by plaintiff in the former New Jersey Supreme Court, Hudson Circuit.

For a better understanding of much of what follows it must be explained that the reversal turned on a misapprehension in the Appellate Division of what this court had had before it in the way of an agreed factual basis for its decision; and that as a consequence the reversal, in this court's view, requires correction in nothing that has already been decided, the present opinion being rendered on matter supplemental to that of the former decision.

The dismissal of the Chancery bill and the striking of the complaint in the law action were held by this court to be not res judicata. Respecting the district court action, the record of judgment there is absolute in form, notwithstanding which it has been plaintiff's contention throughout that it is grounded, not on a meritorious determination of the issues, but on a decision by the district court that it was without jurisdiction. Because of that contention this court ruled that decision upon the legal issues, so far as the district court judgment was concerned, be stayed to "enable plaintiff to institute the appropriate proceeding" in that court for the ascertainment and pronouncement of the true ground and character of the judgment. The opinion of this court, setting forth in extenso the reasons for its decision, is reported in Reeves v. City of Jersey City , 16 N.J. Super. 231 (Cty. Ct. 1951).

Plaintiff promptly inaugurated proceedings in the district court pursuant to the leave given. Testimony was taken at length, including that of the former district court judge by whom the questioned judgment had been rendered. The petition to have the district court judgment declared a judgment upon jurisdiction only was denied "in its entirety"; and a memorandum of opinion was filed by that court. (Trans., Jan. 27, pp. 28-30). In view of such determination, this court, on May 26, 1952, made an order that the aforementioned record of judgment of the district court "be adjudged a legal bar to the present action." On the day following, plaintiff applied to this court for the reopening of the separate trial of the legal issues, "with leave to take proofs," (presumably the same proofs that already had been taken in the district court with the result stated). This application was denied. It was specifically from the last-mentioned orders, for judgment and for denial of the application to reopen, that the appeal was taken. The opinion of the Appellate Division is reported in 22 N.J. Super. 351 (1952).

Now, as to the subject matter of the misapprehension referred to, let it first be noted that the material upon which this court had based its former decision, pertinent to the dismissal of the bill in equity, the striking of the complaint at law and the matter of the judgment in the district court, had been personally and jointly submitted by counsel for the parties in open court; and that such material had included all requisite data pertinent to the decision for which this court had been asked. Moreover, after this court's opinion had been rendered, its attention was in nowise directed by plaintiff's counsel to anything therein contained; there was no application for reargument, and plaintiff promptly moved in the district court, as already stated, pursuant to the leave given. Nor, after the petition to the district court had been denied, was there any representation to this court with respect to any want of proof before it or otherwise, not even upon the occasion of this court's denial of plaintiff's application to reopen the trial of the legal issues. Counsel for plaintiff

makes no claim that any proof had been submitted by him upon the separate trial for which he had moved, that is proof independent of the proof already mentioned. And unless, therefore, he had participated in or assented to the latter proof, the action taken on plaintiff's behalf in keeping with the opinion this court had rendered is totally inexplicable. Notwithstanding all this, it appears unquestionably from the opinion of the Appellate Division that the reviewing court had been given to understand that this court had been without adequate evidence of the district court judgment, or indeed without any evidence at all, to say nothing of the same lack with respect to the other judicial records as well. In its opinion the Appellate Division states (p. 356):

"We have difficulty in understanding how the County Court could find that the district court judgment was res adjudicata to plaintiff's suit. It does not appear that the judgment record was ever before the County Court. There is no stipulation to such effect and counsel for the appellant has represented to this court that the judgment or the facts recited in the County Court's conclusion of the various steps alleged to have been taken by the plaintiff in the Court of Chancery or the Supreme Court were never, in fact, before the County Court. It must be remembered that the presiding judge of the Hudson County (District) Court could not determine on what grounds judgment had been entered in September, 1941 with the benefit of the record and the testimony of the judge who presided at the trial in 1941. How then could the County Court without the record determine that the matter was res adjudicata ?" (Italics supplied.)

Counsel for plaintiff would vindicate his position by showing that a charge made in his appellate brief that proofs were wanting went undenied in the brief of defendants. Assuming this to be true, it can have but the single effect of pointing to an egregious neglect of defendants' cause on appeal. It cannot abate this court's knowledge of what occurred in its presence, nor of the material with which it worked.

Returning to the quoted passage, this court had determined that the district court judgment was res judicata , after the refusal of that court to alter its record, for the reason that the judgment is absolute on its face, and for the

further reason that the decisions appear to put it beyond question that such a record must be deemed final. It is to be borne in mind also that the only question raised respecting the disputed judgment is that already stated. Identities of party and subject matter are not involved. Furthermore, it cannot be questioned, I think, that the doubt which plaintiff's contention would cast upon the district court judgment can be resolved only by the district court itself. These factors in the problem were not dealt with at greater length in the former opinion of this court for the reason that their relation to the immediate question was modified by the contingency involved in the proceedings plaintiff had been given leave to take. In that circumstance it was deemed sufficient for this court to say, as it did, "Ordinarily, of course, the judgment would import a disposition on the merits * * *." (Ibid., p. 238). And again, "The subject is not one that can be dealt with collaterally * * *. The only course available to plaintiff is a direct proceeding in the district court." (Ibid., p. 241). I believe that the view thus expressed on the import of the district court judgment as it stands is amply sustained by the authorities hereinafter cited.

The procedure had upon the return of the case to the County Court included a number of indeterminate features, such as argument on plaintiff's demand for admissions (Trans., Jan. 16, pp. 5-29), and defendants' motion to strike interrogatories (Trans., Jan. 16, p. 30 et seq.). All of this, however, was superseded by a new motion, this time the motion of defendants as well as of plaintiff, for a separate trial of the law issues (Trans., Dec. 5, pp. 2-21; Jan. 23, p. 13 et seq.; Jan. 27, pp. 2-9). Defendants moved in addition for a judgment on the pleadings. But it is with the separate trial of the law issues that the present opinion deals. All that occurred in this court following the reversal, including the arguments and statements of counsel, was by direction of the court reported in full and certified transcripts thereof filed in the clerk's office. The references to these transcripts herein shown are made under their several dates.

For proof upon the retrial of the law issues, original documents were placed in evidence upon the testimony of a representative of the Clerk of the Superior Court, covering the Chancery records and those of the former Supreme Court. Records of the district court were placed in evidence upon the testimony of the county district court clerk. With relation to the Chancery and Supreme Court records, what is before the court now differs not at all in substance from what was here at the time of the first opinion, and the court sees no reason for altering its earlier decision with respect to them. (See 16 N.J. Super. 231, at 234-6). The results in the Court of Chancery and in the Supreme Court are each, therefore, adjudged to be not res judicata to the same extent and for the same reasons as set forth in the earlier opinion.

This brings us to the district court judgment. Does that judgment record a disposition upon an adjudged lack of jurisdiction, or does it record a decision on the merits? This whole question is brought into sharp focus by the county district court's aforementioned refusal to alter the record; and it may well be that what is said here on the subject now should have been said in a supplemental opinion following that result. At any rate, what this court had before it in the first trial of the issues was a certified transcript of the district court judgment, quoted in the opinion. In the evidence now produced the judgment is shown as recorded on a single sheet, obviously part of a looseleaf system. The sheet is designed as a printed form, with blanks to be filled in. It is adaptable for use in about all the foreseeable circumstances of district court litigation, from summons to final execution, its adaptability being effectuated in given instances by the filling in of certain blanks and the leaving of others vacant. Of the trial sub judice and its result, omitting the inapplicable ...


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