January 9, 2008
DAVID J. SCHATTEN AND DONNA P. SCHATTEN, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
RICHARD HAWS, LORA AMOROSO HAWS, ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH GROUP, INC., D/B/A HOME TESTING LABS, INC., ROBERT J. OLIVETO, DEFENDANTS, AND BURGDORFF REALTORS, INC., AND WEICHERT REALTORS, INC., DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS,
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-9590-95.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 14, 2007
Before Judges Skillman, Winkelstein and Yannotti.
Plaintiffs David J. Shatten and Donna P. Shatten appeal from various orders entered in this action, including an order entered on July 21, 2006 dismissing their complaint with prejudice. We affirm.
In this action, which was commenced on August 7, 1995, plaintiffs asserted claims against defendants Richard Haws; Lora Amoroso Haws; Environmental Health Group, Inc. d/b/a Home Testing Labs, Inc.; Robert J. Oliveto; Burgdorff Realtors, Inc.; and Weichert Realtors, Inc. The claims arose from plaintiffs' purchase of certain property in South Orange, New Jersey. Richard and Lora Amoroso Haws were the sellers of the property, and Weichert and Burgdorff were the Haws' agents for the sale. Plaintiffs retained Home Testing to conduct an inspection of the premises, and Mr. Oliveto conducted the inspection. Closing on the sale occurred on August 31, 1994.
According to the complaint, Mr. and Ms. Haws knew of but "willfully, intentionally and fraudulently" failed to disclose the existence of certain "structural and cosmetic defects" in the house, including defective electrical wiring, defective pipe and duct work, and a defective outside deck. Plaintiffs alleged that Home Testing failed to conduct an adequate inspection of the property. Plaintiffs claimed that they had been forced to expend substantial funds to correct the defects in the premises. They also claimed that Ms. Schatten sustained serious personal injuries when she tripped and fell on a sagging step on the outside deck.
Plaintiffs further alleged that Weichert and Burgdorff misrepresented and/or concealed material facts with respect to the property in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act, N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 to -20. Plaintiffs sought compensatory damages, treble damages on the consumer fraud claims, punitive damages, interest, counsel fees and costs, and such further relief deemed necessary or appropriate.
By order entered on August 31, 1998, the court granted Burgdoff's motion for partial summary judgment and dismissed all claims against Burgdorff with the exception of a claim that it failed to disclose the existence of an underground oil tank on the property. Plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration of the August 31, 1998 order. The motion for reconsideration was denied by order filed on September 23, 1998.
On November 4, 1998, Weichert filed a motion for partial summary judgment. The court granted the motion and entered an order on December 17, 1998, dismissing all claims against Weichert with the exception of those related to the oil tank. The order stated that the court reserved its decision on Weichert's motion on the claims regarding the deck.
Plaintiffs thereafter filed a motion for leave to appeal from the December 17, 1998 order. We denied that motion by order dated February 9, 1999. It is unclear from the record whether the matter was ever scheduled for trial. However, by letter dated April 13, 1999, plaintiffs' counsel advised the court that Ms. Schatten would be unable to appear because of a "debilitating medical condition."
There appears to have been no action in the matter until January 31, 2001, when plaintiffs filed a motion to restore the claims that were dismissed by the court's order of December 17, 1998. The court entered an order on March 2, 2001, denying that motion.
There the matter stood until February 22, 2006, when plaintiffs filed a motion to reopen the case and requested that the court schedule a case management conference. Weichert and Burgdoff opposed the motion.*fn1 The judge entered an order on March 31, 2006, which denied the motion without prejudice. The judge stated on the record that before scheduling a case management conference, he would afford Weichert and Burgdorff an opportunity to file motions to dismiss the complaint.
Weichert filed its motion to dismiss on May 16, 2006. Weichert asserted that the doctrine of laches required dismissal of the complaint. In a supporting certification, Weichert's attorney stated that after the court entered the order on March 2, 2001, all activity in the case ceased. Counsel asserted that he believed the case had been abandoned.
Counsel additionally asserted that Mindy Wolensky was the Weichert agent who had worked on the transaction and she was one of Weichert's two key witnesses. Ms. Wolensky was deposed on September 25, 1997, but she died on July 30, 2004. Counsel stated that his ability to defend the case had been "irrevocably damaged by the loss of Ms. Wolensky as a witness inasmuch as she was in a position to testify that the existence of the oil tank was disclosed to the agent working with the buyers."
Burgdorff filed its motion to dismiss on May 18, 2006 and also argued that laches barred plaintiffs from continuing to pursue their claims. Burgdorff's counsel stated in a certification that it had been seven years since his client was granted partial summary judgment and more than five years since plaintiff's motion to restore the claims had been denied. Counsel asserted that plaintiffs' delay was "unexplained, unexcused, and unreasonable" and it had "greatly prejudiced" the defense.
Burgdorff's attorney also stated, "[m]y client's defense is severely prejudiced in that the recollection of its own agent, Carol Lee Jones, has been compromised by [p]laintiff[s'] extreme delay, as she now worked on the sale of the subject property more than [ten] years ago." Counsel added that his file had been destroyed and, while he had some access to documents that were filed electronically, he no longer had "the actual, full physical file." Counsel stated that his file notes were irretrievable. In addition, counsel noted that his client was prejudiced because Ms. Wolensky passed away in 2004.
The judge considered the motions on July 21, 2006, and placed his decision on the record. The judge found that plaintiffs had not provided any explanation for their delay in pursuing the case. The judge also found that Burgdorff and Weichert were prejudiced by plaintiffs' delay. The judge entered an order on July 21, 2006 dismissing the complaint.
Plaintiffs filed a notice of appeal challenging: the July 21, 2006 order dismissing the complaint; the order entered on August 31, 1998 granting Burgdorff's motion for partial summary judgment; the order dated September 23, 1998 denying their motion for reconsideration; the December 17, 1998 order granting Weichert's motion for partial summary judgment; the March 2, 2001 order denying their motion to restore claims; and the March 31, 2006 order denying their motion for a case management conference.
Plaintiffs raise the following arguments for our consideration: 1) the judge erred by dismissing plaintiffs' "remaining claims" because there is no prejudice to defendants based either on the passage of time or the loss of a witness, and plaintiffs did not cause the matter to be removed from the calendar; 2) the trial judge erred in granting Weichert's motion for partial summary judgment since the matter was not ripe for summary judgment; 3) the judge erred by dismissing their claims against Weichert relating to the deck; and 4) the judge erred in dismissing the claims against Weichert for punitive damages.
Plaintiffs first argue that the judge erred by applying the doctrine of laches because defendants have not been prejudiced by their delay in pursuing this matter. We disagree.
The doctrine of laches "is invoked to deny a party enforcement of a known right when the party engages in an inexcusable and unexplained delay in exercising that right to the prejudice of the other party." Knorr v. Smeal, 178 N.J. 169, 180-81 (2003). "The time constraints for the application of laches 'are not fixed but are characteristically flexible.'" Id. at 181 (quoting Lavin v. Hackensack Bd. of Educ., 90 N.J. 145, 151 (1982)). "The key factors to be considered in deciding whether to apply the doctrine are the length of the delay, the reasons for the delay, and the 'changing conditions of either or both parties during the delay.'" Ibid. (quoting Lavin, supra, 90 N.J. at 152). "The core equitable concern in applying laches is whether a party has been harmed by the delay." Ibid. (citing Lavin, supra, 90 N.J. at 152-53).
We are convinced that there is ample support in the record for the judge's decision to apply the doctrine of laches in this matter. As the judge found, plaintiffs did not explain their failure to take any action in this case from March 2, 2001, when the court denied their motion to restore certain claims, and the filing of their motion to reopen the matter on February 22, 2006. We recognize that at some point after the court entered its order on March 2, 2001, the clerk's office apparently considered the matter closed. The clerk's action may have been erroneous, but plaintiffs have not explained why they did not bring this matter to the attention of the court for almost five years. Their failure to do so is clearly inexcusable.
We reject plaintiffs' argument that Weichert and Burgdorff have not been prejudiced by their delay in pursuing this matter. Both of these parties are prejudiced because Ms. Wolensky died in July 2004. As Weichert and Burgdorff point out, Ms. Wolensky was a key witness in this case. She was the Weichert broker-salesperson who represented the sellers in the transaction. Ms. Wolensky was deposed but her deposition was taken for discovery purposes. Defendants never agreed that Ms. Wolensky's deposition would be used as trial testimony, and defendants' attorneys did not take the deposition with the expectation that they would have to ask Ms. Wolensky all of the questions that they intended to ask her during the trial of this matter.
In addition, Burgdorff and Weichert have been unduly prejudiced by plaintiffs' delay pursuing this matter because Ms. Jones, the Burgdorff agent who was involved in the sale of the property, is unable to recall details of the transaction, which took place in 1994. Plaintiffs maintain that Ms. Jones' recollection could be refreshed but her inability to recall key facts would undermine the credibility of her testimony at trial, and any effort by plaintiffs to refresh her recollection would further undermine the credibility of her statements.
Plaintiffs additionally argue that the judge erred because he did not conduct a hearing before applying the laches doctrine. However, a fact hearing was not required in this case because there was no genuine issue of material fact relevant to whether laches should be applied. As the judge correctly observed on the record, there would be little benefit to having plaintiffs appear in court and questioned on why it took them so long to inquire as to the status of their case. Moreover, it was undisputed that Ms. Wolensky died and the record plainly established the reasons why defendants were prejudiced by their inability to present her testimony at trial. In addition, a hearing was not required to determine that defendants are prejudiced because Ms. Jones cannot recall details of a transaction that took place in 1994. Therefore, we conclude that the judge did not err by applying the doctrine of laches and by finding that a hearing was not warranted in this matter.
Plaintiffs have also appealed from the orders entered on December 17, 1998, which granted Weichert's motion for partial summary judgment, and on March 2, 2001, which denied plaintiff's motion to restore certain claims that were previously dismissed.*fn2
Even if we agreed with plaintiffs and concluded that the court erred by entering these orders, laches would bar plaintiffs from pursuing those claims at this time.
We recognize that plaintiffs did not have a right to appeal the interlocutory orders until a final judgment was entered in this case. R. 2:2-3(a)(1). However, plaintiffs unexcused and unexplained delay in pursuing the matter to final judgment in the trial court, and the prejudice to Weichert that results from the delay, bars plaintiffs from pursuing the claims that were dismissed in 1998, just as it bars them from pursuing any claims that were remaining in the case when the action was dismissed in July 2006.
We therefore affirm the order entered on July 21, 2006, dismissing plaintiffs' complaint with prejudice; and dismiss plaintiffs' appeal from the interlocutory orders entered on August 31, 1998; September 23, 1998; December 17, 1998; and March 2, 2001.