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Lettenmaier v. Lube Connection

December 01, 1999

KATHLEEN L. LETTENMAIER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
LUBE CONNECTION, INC., A NEW JERSEY CORPORATION TRADING AS LUBE CONNECTION, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, AND JOHN DOE, A FICTITIOUS NAME, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Long, J.

Argued October 13, 1999

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 316 N.J. Super. 319 (1998).

We are here called upon to determine whether counsel fees under the Consumer Fraud Act (N.J.S.A. 56:8-19) should be considered part of the "amount in controversy" in calculating the $10,000 jurisdictional limit established by Rule 6:1-1(c) for access to the Special Civil Part of the Superior Court. We have concluded that such fees are not part of the jurisdictional calculus.

I.

The case arose on October 11, 1995, when plaintiff Kathleen Lettenmaier filed suit in the Special Civil Part alleging negligence and common law fraud against defendant Lube Connection, Inc., as a result of certain maintenance work defendant performed on her automobile. The details of plaintiff's complaint are irrelevant to the issues presented here. She also alleged a violation of the Consumer Fraud Act (N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 to -91), and demanded treble damages not to exceed the jurisdictional limit of the court, plus interest, attorney's fees and costs of suit.

Defendant filed an answer and pre-trial discovery ensued. An arbitrator found in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $3,080, but refused to decide whether defendant committed an act of consumer fraud. Defendant filed a notice seeking a trial de novo.

Thereafter, defendant failed to respond to plaintiff's discovery demands and the trial court entered an order of default. A proof hearing was held and a final judgment of default was entered in plaintiff's favor in the amount of $9,240 ($3,080 trebled).

Plaintiff requested attorneys' fees. Although plaintiff sought a greater amount and the trial court acknowledged plaintiff's entitlement thereto, the court capped plaintiff's fee award at $760, the difference between the treble damages of $9,080 and the $l0,000 jurisdictional limit of the court. Although concluding that attorneys' fees are not part of "damages," the trial court held that such fees are an element of the "amount in controversy" for jurisdictional purposes. In ruling as it did, the trial court expressed concern about assessing attorneys' fees in excess of the $10,000 limit against a defendant who is not aware of such a possibility. The trial court then gave plaintiff the option of transferring the case to the Superior Court, Law Division. Instead, plaintiff agreed to waive recovery of any additional amount and accepted the $10,000 award pursuant to Rule 6:1-2(c). Final judgment was entered in the amount of $11,028.25, consisting of the treble damage award plus $760 in counsel fees and costs of suit.

Plaintiff moved for reconsideration, seeking the full amount of her attorney's fees, which by then were mounting as a result of her motion and defendant's motion to set aside the default judgment. Citing Nieves v. Baran, 164 N.J. Super. 86, 89 (App. Div. 1978), plaintiff argued that counsel fees under the Consumer Fraud Act can be awarded in excess of the jurisdictional limit. The trial court disagreed, reasoning that counsel fees are unlike the kinds of costs that are excluded from the jurisdictional limit of the Special Civil Part. . . . The only types of additional money awards that can be added to the $10,000 limit in the Special Civil Part . . . are . . . filing fees, court officer commissions, mileage fees, those types of costs that are provided in [the] statute and that are predictable based on the dollar amount of the judgment and the fee schedules established by Rule or statute.

Thus, the trial court concluded that Consumer Fraud Act counsel fees must be part of the amount in controversy.

On plaintiff's appeal the Appellate Division affirmed. Lettenmaier v. Lube Connection, Inc. 316 N.J. Super. 319 (1998). Relying on Wisser v. Kaufman Carpet Co., 188 N.J. Super. 574 (App. Div. 1983), the panel concluded that "[c]osts as used in R. 6:1-2(c), simply put, do not include consumer fraud counsel fees." In reaching its Conclusion, the Appellate Division considered a number of federal diversity cases in which statutory counsel fees were used to reach the jurisdictional minimum. Lettenmaier, supra, 316 N.J. Super. at 324 (citing Garcia v. Gen. Motors Corp., 910 F. Supp. 160 (D.N.J. 1995)). Because a party suing under the Consumer Fraud Act is entitled to counsel fees, the Appellate Division reasoned that those fees are part of the amount recoverable and thus subject to the Special Civil Part's jurisdictional limit. Id. at 321. We granted plaintiff's petition for certification. 158 N.J. 74 (1999).

II.

The precursor to the Special Civil Part was the County District Court, which was abolished by statute in 1983. That court's limited jurisdiction was then transferred to the Superior Court. "[T]he concept of a special court of limited jurisdiction, functioning in an expedited manner, was too useful not to survive the demise of the county district courts." Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment on R. 6:1-1 to -3 (1999). Thus, by Supreme Court order (dated December 13, 1982) and later by court rule ...


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