On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-7033-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 7, 2007
Before Judges Skillman and Winkelstein.
On September 1, 2005, plaintiff, an African-American state trooper, filed a complaint which alleged various claims under the Conscientious Employees Protection Act (CEPA), N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -8, the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -49, and Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C.A. §2000e to 2000e-17. The complaint named the New Jersey State Police, the Office of the Attorney General, the Superintendent of the State Police and various other members of the State Police as defendants.
Defendants filed a motion under Rule 4:6-2(e) to dismiss plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim. The trial court entered an order on January 31, 2006 "dismissing" defendants' motion and ordering plaintiff to file an amended complaint.
Plaintiff filed an amended complaint, and defendants renewed their motion to dismiss. Before the return date, plaintiff obtained new counsel who requested the opportunity to file a new amended complaint. The trial court granted this request and denied defendants' motion to dismiss without prejudice.
Plaintiff filed a second amended complaint, which added a number of new defendants, including an assistant attorney general and two deputy attorneys general. Defendants again renewed their motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Defendants filed an eighty-page brief in support of the motion, which argued that some of plaintiff's claims had not been filed within the applicable statutory limitations period and that those claims that were not time-barred failed to state a claim under any of the statutory provisions relied upon by plaintiff.
Without hearing oral argument, the trial court entered an order on October 4, 2006 dismissing plaintiff's complaint with prejudice "for the reasons stated in the moving papers." After filing a notice of appeal from this order, plaintiff's counsel sent two letters to the trial court requesting the court to provide findings or an opinion in accordance with Rule 2:5-1(b). However, the court did not reply to either letter and, other than the previously quoted notation at the bottom of the order, it never filed an opinion explaining its reasons for dismissing plaintiff's complaint.
Initially, we note that an order granting a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is appealable as of right. Therefore, the trial court was required under Rule 1:7-4(a) to "find the facts and state its conclusion of law thereon" by either a written or oral opinion. "Failure to perform that duty 'constitutes a disservice to the litigants, the attorneys and the appellate court.'" Curtis v. Finneran, 83 N.J. 563, 569-70 (1980) (quoting Kenwood Assocs. v. Bd. of Adjustment of Englewood, 141 N.J. Super. 1, 4 (App. Div. 1976)).
A trial court cannot discharge this duty simply by incorporating the arguments of the prevailing parties by reference. The inadequacy of this form of disposition is especially evident in a case such as this, where the moving parties relied upon various alternative arguments for dismissal of plaintiff's complaint. Thus, we cannot determine from the order dismissing plaintiff's complaint whether the trial court concluded that plaintiff's claims were untimely, that his allegations failed to state a claim under any of the statutes he relies upon, or that some of his claims were untimely and others not actionable. We also have no way of knowing the reasoning process by which the court arrived at whatever conclusions led it to dismiss plaintiff's complaint.
Although a remand would be warranted under these circumstances, we have decided to address the merits because of the length of time that has elapsed since the filing of plaintiff's complaint and because it is clear that the complaint does state claims upon which relief could be granted.
In considering a motion to dismiss a complaint under Rule 4:6-2(e), a court should only decide "whether a cause of action is 'suggested' by the facts." Printing Mart-Morristown v. Sharp Elects. Corp., 116 N.J. 739, 746 (1989) (quoting Velantzas v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., 109 N.J. 189, 192 (1988)). A court reviewing such a motion should "search the complaint in depth and with liberality to ascertain whether the fundament of a cause of action may be gleaned even from an obscure statement of claim, opportunity being given to amend if necessary." Ibid. (quoting Di Cristofaro v. Laurel Grove Mem'l Park, 43 N.J. Super. 244, 252 (App. Div. 1957)). A motion to dismiss under Rule 4:6-2(e) "should be granted in only the rarest of instances." Id. at 772.
Judged by these indulgent standards, it is clear that at least some of plaintiff's claims could be found to have been timely filed and that "the fundament of a cause of action may be gleaned" from plaintiff's allegations. We do not consider it necessary to set forth all the allegations of plaintiff's eighty-page second ...