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Griggs v. Faber

May 15, 2009

RENE GRIGGS, KAREN ORTIZ, LAURA YOUGH, CHRISTINA BENITEZ, DANIELLE LANG, JOYCE VEREEN, SHAVON RANDOLPH, BETTY CLEMMONS, ALISA LAWRENCE-JOHNSON, JOYCE JOHNSON, PAMELIS SANTIAGO, CORA SMITH, MARIBEL QUINONES, LATISHA WILLIAMS, GLENDA CAMPBELL, LYNETTE SMITH, MARIA MARTINEZ, CINDY DOLPH, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS, AND JACQUELINE ROUNDTREE, KATHLEEN SLOCKBOWER, IRIS MARANT, DIANA ROMAN, JESSICA CORTES, SANDRA SMALLS, SHERRY WALTON, PAULA WILLIAMS, MICHELE PITTARI, JENNIFER RODRIGUEZ, LINDA WARD, TINA CHAMPAGNE, TAMIKA WALKER, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MARIE FABER, RALPH TRIONFO, ROBERT SCHIFFMAN, CHARLES DEFEO, JOSE VELASQUEZ, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Bergen County, Docket No. L-4007-06.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued October 15, 2008

Before Judges Skillman, Graves and Grall.

This is an appeal from a final judgment of the Law Division, which dismissed a complaint that challenged the procedures followed by the Civil Division in Passaic County regarding the service of initial and post-judgment process and the completion of returns of service in summary eviction actions.

The plaintiffs are thirty-one persons who were formerly defendants in summary eviction actions in the Passaic Vicinage. The defendants are Marie Faber, who is the Civil Division Manager and formerly Clerk of the Special Civil Part for the Passaic Vicinage, and four Special Civil Part officers for the Passaic Vicinage. The Special Civil Part officers are responsible for service of initial process and of warrants of removal in summary eviction actions. One of Faber's responsibilities is the supervision of these Special Civil Part officers.

Plaintiffs' complaint alleged that the defendant Special Civil Part officers do not attempt personal service or effective substitute service of initial process in summary eviction actions. The complaint alleged that "[t]he position of the [Special] Civil Part staff is that the court officers are not required to attempt personal service of initial process in summary eviction [actions]." In addition, the complaint alleged that the Special Civil Part officers "[n]ever fill in the date or time of service; [n]ever describe the person served . . .; [n]ever describe the premises [where service was made]; [n]ever print their name [on the return of service] and use only an indecipherable signature; [and] [n]ever list the attempts at personal service" on the return of service section of the initial process in summary eviction actions. The complaint also alleged that the Special Civil Part clerical staff who send a copy of the initial process in a summary eviction action to the defendant by regular mail "[n]ever fill in the date or time of mail service; [n]ever sign the return of service; [n]ever list the premises served by mail; [n]ever print their name on the return of service, and never list the means of mail service utilized."

Regarding the post-judgment stage of summary eviction actions, the complaint alleged that the Special Civil Part officers "do not appear to attempt personal service or substituted service of warrants of removal." The complaint further alleged that the Special Civil Part officers "[n]ever fill in the date or time of service; [n]ever describe the person served (since they never attempt personal or substituted service); [n]ever describe the premises; [n]ever list the method of service; [and] use a form with the wrong phone number for legal service" on the return of service section of warrants of removal. In addition, the complaint alleged that the Special Civil Part officers often serve warrants of removal on the third rather than the fourth day following entry of the judgment of possession, and as a result three complete business days are not allowed to expire before issuance of the warrant of removal.

The first count of plaintiffs' complaint sought a judgment ordering Faber to ensure that "defendant court officers submit initial process in summary eviction proceedings with properly completed return of service sections" and that "the court staff reject submissions by the court officers that lack: [t]he date or time of service; and/or [a] description of the person served; and/or [a] description of the premises; and/or [t]he court officer's printed name and legible signature; and [a] description of the attempts at personal service."

The second count of plaintiffs' complaint sought a judgment ordering Faber to "require court staff that mail initial process in summary eviction proceedings complete a return of service form; and/or [o]n the return of service section of initial process in summary eviction proceedings, the Special Civil Part Court staff, who mail out a copy of the initial process in 'nail and mail' service situations must: [f]ill in the date or time of mail service; and [s]ign the return of service; and [l]ist the premises served by mail; and [p]rint their name on the return of service; and [l]ist the means of mail service utilized." In addition, the second count sought judgment ordering Faber to "require that court staff that calculate the issuance date of warrants of removal properly calculate such issuance dates."

The third count of the complaint sought a judgment ordering the defendant Special Civil Part officers to "submit proof of service that includes: [t]he date or time of service; [a] description of the person served; [a] description of the premises; [t]he court officer's printed name and legible signature, and [a] description of the attempts at personal service." In addition, count three sought to enjoin the Special Civil Part officers "from continuing the practice of failing to complete the return of service section of initial process in summary eviction proceedings."

The fourth count of the complaint sought a judgment enjoining the Special Civil Part officers "from continuing the practice of only attempting 'nail and mail' service or mail only service in summary eviction proceedings; and/or . . . from continuing the practice of posting process on the outside of multiple dwelling buildings." This count also sought a declaratory judgment that the Special Civil Part "lacks jurisdiction over the person where[:] 1) there is only mail service, 2) there is only posting on the door of the premises, 3) there is only posting on the outside of the multiple dwelling building and appropriate mail service, 4) there is no attempt at personal service, 5) there is no attempt at substituted service, 6) there is only one attempt at personal service, 7) the mailing of process is done less than 13 days before the return date of the complaint, or 8) posting or personal service or substituted service is done less than ten days before the return date of the complaint."

The fifth count sought a judgment requiring the Special Civil Part officers to "file warrants of removal in summary eviction proceedings with completed return of service sections." This count also sought a declaration that the Special Civil Part officers' "actions be deemed inconsistent with their job responsibilities, inconsistent with the court warrant of removal form and violative of plaintiffs' due process rights."

Plaintiffs' complaint, which was filed in Passaic County, was subsequently transferred to Bergen County, apparently because Faber and the other defendants are subject to the supervision of the Assignment Judge, Presiding Civil Judge and Trial Court Administrator for the Passaic Vicinage.

Plaintiffs conducted extensive discovery regarding the allegations of their complaint, which included depositions of the four defendant Special Civil Part officers, Faber and other court administrators who work under Faber including Glenn DeBlasio, the Assistant Civil Division Manager for the Special Civil Part in the Passaic Vicinage, and Joyce Bolton, the team leader for landlord/tenant matters. Those depositions consume more than 500 pages of the substantial record before us on this appeal.

After the completion of discovery, plaintiffs and Faber filed cross-motions for summary judgment. In support of her motion, Faber submitted a certification which indicated that she, the Presiding Judge for the Civil Division, the Judge assigned to hear landlord/tenant cases and various court administrators had met with the Legal Services' attorney representing plaintiffs before the filing of this action to discuss his concerns and that certain changes in the procedures relating to service of process and return of service in summary eviction actions were made after that meeting:

In November of 2005, plaintiffs' counsel, John Bart, sent correspondence to me raising concerns regarding service of process in landlord/tenant matters. . . . .

Plaintiffs' counsel alleged that there had been an increase in the frequency of tenants not receiving the minimum ten days notice of the ...


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