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Reiser v. Simon

Decided: October 21, 1960.


Conford, Foley and Halpern. The opinion of the court was delivered by Foley, J.A.D.


Plaintiffs appeal pro se from two judgments of the Middlesex County Court. The appeal is undefended.

Preliminarily, we may say that through a clerical error in taxing costs on entry of the first judgment, duplicative judgments were entered in the district court and later docketed in the office of the Middlesex County Clerk. Following the oral argument this error was corrected by an order of this court and the records of both the district court and the county clerk now properly reflect but one judgment and the proper amount of costs thereon.

Plaintiffs and defendants Simon were parties to an agreement by the terms of which plaintiffs contracted to erect a dwelling for the Simons for the price of $16,100. Defendants paid on account thereof at various times $15,850. The balance of $250 was held in escrow by Lewis Jacobson, attorney for the Simons, pending satisfactory completion of certain work. When a disagreement arose between the parties respecting this work plaintiffs demanded that Jacobson pay over the escrow money. Upon instructions of the Simons, Jacobson refused to do so, whereupon plaintiffs brought action against the Simons and Jacobson to recover this sum. Jacobson deposited it with the court and for all practical purposes ceased to be a party to the suit.

The defendants' counterclaim alleged various items of poor workmanship, additional to those which were the subject

of the escrow agreement. The trial court sitting without a jury found against plaintiffs on their claim and in favor of defendants on the counterclaim and awarded damages in the amount of $1,000. Subsequently by order of the court the interpleaded sum of $250 was turned over to defendants.

In the "Statement of Evidence and Proceedings" contained in the appendix the trial court narrated sufficient evidence to support its finding of fact that the work had been "done in a very poor manner and that it would be necessary to spend a considerable sum in order to place the house in the condition it should have been in when sold." This spells out a substantial default by plaintiffs precluding recovery on their complaint. It is not the function of this court to substitute its judgment for that of the trial court in the determination of reasonably debatable factual issues. See Hartpence v. Grouleff , 15 N.J. 545 (1954). Thus, in so far as concerns the basic finding that plaintiffs by reason of the inferior quality of their work breached the contract, the action of the trial court will not be disturbed.

However, we take a different view with respect to the quantum of damages awarded to defendants on the counterclaim. We observe in the statement of evidence no recital of proof sufficient to support the award of $1,000. The mere recitals that "it was testified that in order to correct all defects and to put the premises in livable condition it would amount to $2,105.90" and that defendants "produced a bill in the sum of $247 for carpeting which was ruined because of poor workmanship" are not enough to reflect what the evidence was which the court deemed sufficient to support a conclusion of damage in any particular amount. Nor is any such conclusion arrived at. There is only the conclusion that the expenditure of a considerable sum would be necessitated to remedy such defects. A trial judge must be explicit in his recital of the evidence and in his factual findings and must so correlate them to his legal conclusions that the amount of the judgment entered manifestly appears

to be undergirded by legal proof of substantial probative value and by specific factual findings thereon. The judgment in favor of defendants on the counterclaim is therefore set aside and the case is remanded with directions to the trial court to prepare adequate findings of fact and conclusions of law in respect of defendants' damages. The judgment in favor of the defendants on the main case is affirmed.

Plaintiffs raise an important jurisdictional question in that the judgment in effect benefits defendants to the extent of $1,250. N.J.S. 2 A:6-34 limits the jurisdiction of the county district courts to actions "where the debt, balance, penalty, damage or other matter in dispute does not exceed, exclusive of costs, the sum or value of $1,000 * * *." Predecessor statutes all contained similar language of limitation, only the amount having been changed from time to time.

The amount in dispute is the test of jurisdiction. Smock v. Throckmorton , 8 N.J.L. 216, 217-218 (Sup. Ct. 1825); Bowler v. Osborne , 75 N.J.L. 903, 906 (E. & A. 1907); Besser v. Krasny , 113 N.J.L. 81, 84 (Sup. Ct. 1934), reversed on other grounds 114 N.J.L. 146 (E. & A. ...

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