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Goldsmith v. Camden County Surrogate's Office

July 22, 2009

CLIFF K. GOLDSMITH, ON BEHALF OF HIMSELF AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CAMDEN COUNTY SURROGATE'S OFFICE, PATRICIA JONES IN HER CAPACITY AS THE CAMDEN COUNTY SURROGATE AND CAMDEN COUNTY, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-6112-06.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Messano, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued April 22, 2009

Before Judges Axelrad*fn1 , Parrillo and Messano.

Plaintiff Cliff K. Goldsmith appeals from the dismissal by summary judgment of his putative class action complaint against defendants Camden County Surrogate's Office, Patricia Jones, in her capacity as the Camden County Surrogate, and Camden County (collectively, defendants).*fn2 The motion judge agreed with defendants that plaintiff's complaint was time-barred by Rule 4:69-6(a) (the Rule), and the Supreme Court's holding in Mason v. City of Hoboken, 196 N.J. 51 (2008). On appeal, plaintiff contends that his complaint, premised not upon the denial of access to public records, but rather upon a cause of action for unjust enrichment, and seeking disgorgement of alleged excess fees charged by defendants, is not subject to the time limits contained in the Rule or the Court's holding in Mason. We have considered the arguments raised in light of the record and applicable legal standards. We affirm.

I.

On August 24, 2006, plaintiff filed suit alleging that on April 13, 2006, he made 105 "self-serve copies of documents he searched from" defendants' records. He was charged three dollars per page, a total of $315, which he alleged "exceed[ed] the 'actual cost' of making [the] copies." Plaintiff claimed this violated the common law right of public access, the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13, and the Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to -2 (the CRA). He sought the "refund/disgorgement of all sums in excess of the charges permitted[,]" counsel fees and costs, and declaratory relief setting an appropriate fee schedule. In separately pled counts, invoking the court's "general equitable powers," and espousing a theory of "unjust enrichment," plaintiff sought similar relief, along with an accounting of the fees defendants' had charged and an injunction prohibiting future overcharges. Defendants filed their answer asserting, among other things, that the complaint was "barred by the applicable statute of limitations."

We need not detail the motion practice that ensued because it is largely irrelevant to the issues presented. Shortly after the Court's decision in Mason was released, defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff's suit was filed beyond the forty-five day statute of limitations contained in the Rule and should be dismissed. Plaintiff did not dispute that the filing was beyond the Rule's timeframe, but, instead, argued that Mason did not apply. He contended there was a distinction between an action seeking access to public records, to which the Rule's time limits and Mason's holding applied, and his cause of action, which sought equitable relief from the excess fees defendants charged. Plaintiff claimed our decision in Neelthak Development Corp. v. Gloucester Township, 272 N.J. Super. 319 (App. Div. 1994) controlled, and his action was not time-barred.

Oral argument on the motion took place on August 29, 2008. The judge concluded that plaintiff's equitable causes of action were all subsumed within his OPRA or common law claim for access, and that no viable cause of action was presented under the CRA. Because plaintiff did not file his complaint within the forty-five day statute of limitations contained in the Rule, and pursuant to the holding in Mason, the judge dismissed the complaint with prejudice.*fn3 This appeal ensued.

II.

Both sides have essentially reiterated before us the arguments raised below. We begin by reviewing the statute of limitations contained in the Rule, which provides No action in lieu of prerogative writs shall be commenced later than 45 days after the accrual of the right to the review, hearing or relief claimed, except as provided by paragraph (b) of this rule.

[R. 4:69-6(a).]

Paragraph (b) then sets forth eleven different specific types of claims for which the forty-five day limit is shortened, enlarged, or defined in greater detail. Regardless of the nature of the prerogative writ claim, however, "[t]he court may enlarge the period of time provided in paragraph (a) or (b) . . . where it is manifest that the interest of justice so requires." R. 4:69-6(c). As he did below, plaintiff concedes that if the Rule applies to his claim for equitable relief, his complaint is time-barred because it was not filed until four months after he was charged the allegedly excessive fees for ...


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