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Morais v. M&A Auto Repair

January 25, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Union County, DC-17266-06.

Per curiam.


Submitted January 14, 2008

Before Judges Lintner and Sabatino.

Plaintiff, Manuel de Morais, appeals from an adverse judgment in the Special Civil part, asserting that the judge erred by not adjourning the case to permit him to obtain a lawyer. We reject plaintiff's contention and affirm the judgment.

Plaintiff filed his complaint seeking $6155.84 in damages against defendant, M&A Auto Repair, Inc., for unfinished repairs to his 1999 Ford van. A trial was held on February 15, 2007. Plaintiff, who speaks Portuguese, appeared pro se, while defendant was represented by counsel. A Portuguese interpreter was provided by the Court.

Plaintiff presented a repair estimate prepared by defendant totaling $2150. The estimate was offered as a joint exhibit. Plaintiff testified that the repair work done by defendant was unprofessional and he presented seventeen photographs, which were marked into evidence. According to plaintiff, the photographs showed that the painting was done incorrectly, claiming that it ran into tears and there was rust underneath and on the inside of the door. He also testified that defendant did not use rubber on the door and the door was not aligned, thus preventing it from closing properly. Plaintiff further indicated that defendant incorrectly placed putty on the broken area of the door. Plaintiff testified he was given an estimate of $6155.84 from a body shop to fix the work done by defendant.

After plaintiff completed his direct testimony, the judge asked whether there was anything else plaintiff wanted to tell him about the case. Plaintiff responded: "What I have to say is already said. As I said, it's on your hands as an excellent judge to decide that. I only wanted the job to be done accordingly the way it was supposed to do, and he did not do it."

On cross-examination, defendant's counsel asked plaintiff to point to the area shown on the photographs where the paint ran, where there was rust, and where the doors were not properly aligned. He also established that plaintiff examined the van prior to paying defendant for the work.

Defense counsel introduced a $50 invoice for an additional lock installed by defendant, which plaintiff had not paid. Antonio Oliveira testified that he agreed to fix the outside of plaintiff's van and paint it. When he looked at the van to give plaintiff an estimate, he noticed that three locks did not work. He included $150 in the estimate for the cost of new locks but did not charge plaintiff for changing them. Plaintiff paid defendant but came back a couple days later because one of the doors would not open. Plaintiff left the van with defendant, who discovered that an additional lock located inside the van was broken. Defendant was able to acquire a replacement lock for $50. He replaced the broken lock, however, when he asked plaintiff to pay him for the cost of the inside lock, plaintiff refused. The lawsuit then followed. Defendant testified that he did the work he was hired to do.

When the judge asked plaintiff if he had any questions, plaintiff responded, "I didn't know the day was today that I needed a lawyer to defend me, because this gentleman is lying." He also told the judge that when he came to court he was told that if he needed a lawyer one would be offered to him. The judge advised plaintiff that the trial had already commenced and taken place over the last hour. He told plaintiff that he would decide the case on the competent admissible evidence. When the judge asked again if plaintiff had any questions for Oliveira, plaintiff responded he did not and would leave the decision as to who was telling the truth in "[his] Honor's hand[s]."

The judge decided the case in favor of defendant and placed his findings of fact on the record. Plaintiff does not challenge the judge's findings but instead argues that when he advised the judge that he wanted a lawyer, the judge's failure to adjourn the trial represented an abuse of discretion.

Ordinarily, we do not interfere with a trial judge's denial of a request for an adjournment unless it appears that an injustice has been done. Nadel v. Bergamo, 160 N.J. Super. 213, 218 (App. Div. 1978). We are satisfied, from our review of the complete record, that the judge's refusal to consider an adjournment did not represent a mistaken exercise of his discretion. The objective of the Special Civil Part "is to provide a forum for pro se litigants that is quick, procedurally simple and relatively inexpensive." Schumy v. Cremer, 159 N.J. Super. 514, 516 (Cty. Ct. 1978). Here, plaintiff, as a pro se party, was provided with a full and fair opportunity to state his case. No one was precluded from offering evidence. The judge explained to plaintiff at the outset that he had the burden of proving his claims. He also took pains to elicit plaintiff's testimony in a fair and thorough manner, and to clarify his responses when they were ambiguous.

As the judge noted, both plaintiff and defendant had presented their proofs when plaintiff complained that he did not have a lawyer. When asked whether plaintiff had any cross-examination questions for defendant, plaintiff responded that he would leave the decision of who was telling the truth in the judge's hands. At the point in time when plaintiff complained that he did not have a lawyer, the trial was virtually completed. We conclude, from our careful review of the entire record, that plaintiff's arguments on appeal that the judge abused his discretion is legally and factually unsupported, and the issue presented is without sufficient merit to warrant further discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(A) and (E). We are equally ...

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