Before Judges Skillman and Newman.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 14, 1999
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County.
This appeal involves the standard that governs a motion to reinstate a complaint which has been dismissed because of the plaintiff's failure to file a motion to confirm an arbitration award within the fifty-day period allowed under Rule 4:21A-6(b)(3).
On August 21, 1995, plaintiff suffered personal injuries when her foot slipped into a hole in the parking lot of the apartment complex where she lived. Thereafter, plaintiff filed this action against the owner of the apartment complex, defendant Heritage Court Associates, and her claim was submitted to mandatory arbitration pursuant to Rule 4:21A- 1(a)(2).
On March 4, 1998, the arbitrators found 100% liability against defendant and awarded plaintiff $15,000 in damages exclusive of prejudgment interest. On April 17, 1998, subsequent to expiration of the thirty-day period for demanding a trial de novo, defendant sent a letter to plaintiff offering to settle the case for $15,000. Plaintiff rejected this offer and made a settlement demand of $22,500.
On May 29, 1998, the trial court entered an order pursuant to Rule 4:21A-6(b) *fn1 dismissing the case, because neither party had demanded a trial de novo within thirty days of the arbitration award, and the parties had not moved for confirmation or submitted a consent order for dismissal or entry of judgment within fifty days of the award. Defendant subsequently withdrew its offer to settle the case for $15,000.
On June 30, 1998, plaintiff filed a motion to reinstate her complaint. Her attorney's supporting certification stated that the parties had made offers and counteroffers to settle the case during the period between the arbitration award and entry of the order of dismissal. Plaintiff's motion also sought an order placing the case on the "active trial list." The trial court denied the motion in a brief oral opinion which concluded that plaintiff had failed to demonstrate any "extraordinary circumstance to reinstate after the 30 day period."
A motion to extend the time for confirmation of an arbitration award under Rule 4:21A is governed by a different standard than a motion to extend the time for demanding a trial de novo. Sprowl v. Kitselman, 267 N.J. Super. 602, 610 (App. Div. 1993). The time limit for filing a demand for a trial de novo is statutory; N.J.S.A. 39:6A-31, which applies to arbitration proceedings in automobile negligence personal injury actions, and N.J.S.A. 2A:23A-26, which applies to arbitration proceedings in other personal injury actions, both provide that a party must demand a trial de novo within thirty days of the award. *fn2 This thirty-day limit may be relaxed only upon a showing of "extraordinary circumstances." Hartsfield v. Fantini, 149 N.J. 611, 618 (1997).
In contrast, the fifty-day time limit upon the filing of a motion to confirm an arbitration award has no statutory foundation. It is imposed solely by court rule. R. 4:21A-6(b)(3). Moreover, while strict enforcement of the thirty-day limit on a demand for a trial de novo "furthers the stated aims of the compulsory arbitration program, which is to bring about inexpensive, speedy adjudication of disputes and to ease the caseload of state courts," Hartsfield, supra, 149 N.J. at 619 (1997) (quoting Behm v. Ferreira, 286 N.J. Super. 566, 574 (App. Div. 1996)), a relaxation of the time period for filing a motion to confirm an arbitration award does not "thwart the effectiveness of a valid arbitration." Sprowl, supra, 267 N.J. Super. at 610. In fact, a plaintiff who obtains an award in arbitration proceedings under Rule 4:21A commonly receives payment from the defendant without filing a motion to confirm. Thus, the only apparent reason for entry of an order of dismissal when there has not been a timely demand for a trial de novo or motion to confirm, and the parties have not submitted a consent order of dismissal or judgment, is to clear the court calendar of a case which has been finally resolved by arbitration. *fn3
For these reasons, we have held that the dismissal of a case pursuant to Rule 4:21-6(b)(3) for failure to file a timely motion for confirmation of an arbitration award is a "procedural dismissal," which is "subject to vacation under the standards set forth in R. 4:50-1." Id. at 606. *fn4 A dismissal pursuant to Rule 4:21-6(b)(3) is similar in this respect to a default judgment entered against a party who has failed to file a timely pleading or had an answer stricken because of a violation of the court rules. It is well-established that a motion to vacate a default judgment is "viewed with great liberality." Housing Auth. of Town of Morristown v. Little, 135 N.J. 274, 283 (1994) (quoting Marder v. Realty Constr. Co., 84 N.J. Super. 313, 318-19 (App. Div.), aff'd, 43 N.J. 508 (1964)). The reason courts take an indulgent approach towards such motions is that a default judgment deprives a party of the benefit of an adjudication on the merits. See Hartsfield, supra, 149 N.J. at 618.
The equitable considerations supporting relief from a procedural dismissal for failure to file a timely motion for confirmation of an arbitration award under Rule 4:21A are even more compelling. A plaintiff who has obtained an arbitration award has already expended the time and money required to present evidence at an arbitration hearing, and the arbitrator or arbitrators who heard the evidence have determined that plaintiff is entitled to a recovery. Furthermore, once the thirty- day period allowed by Rule 4:21A-6(b)(1) and N.J.S.A. 2A:23A-26 for demanding a trial de novo or moving for modification or vacation of the arbitration award has expired, the award is no longer subject to challenge by the losing party except upon a showing of extraordinary circumstances. Consequently, a motion to confirm is simply a pro forma step to convert the award into a judgment, and as our Supreme Court has pointed out, "in most cases only the rights of the dilatory prevailing party will be affected by his delay in applying to the court for confirmation." Heffner v. Jacobson, 100 N.J. 550, 555 (1985) (quoting trial court opinion in same case, 185 N.J. Super. 524, 528 (Ch. Div. 1982)). Therefore, a motion to vacate a dismissal for failure to file a timely motion to confirm an arbitration award should be viewed with great liberality.
Plaintiff's motion for relief from the dismissal of her complaint sought an order reinstating the complaint and "restoring this matter to the active trial list." Although this motion could be read literally to seek reinstatement solely for the purpose of obtaining a trial de novo, we cannot conceive of any logical reason for plaintiff to confine her motion to a plea for that relief, rather than also seeking, in the alternative, to reinstate her complaint in order to obtain confirmation of the arbitration award. Moreover, plaintiff never expressly indicated that she was seeking reinstatement solely to obtain a trial de novo. Consequently, we believe that, in the interests of ...