April 28, 2010
RUTGERS, THE STATE UNIVERSITY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
BUTHAINA KHALIL A/K/A BETH KHALIL A/K/A BUTHAINA H. KHALIL A/K/A BUTHAINA MOUSSA, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Morris County, Docket No. DC-8116-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 15, 2010
Before Judges Baxter and Alvarez.
Defendant Buthaina Khalil appeals from a Morris County Special Civil Part judgment in the amount of $5522 entered against her after a bench trial on December 3, 2008. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
Plaintiff Rutgers, the State University (Rutgers), extended financial aid to Khalil to assist with the cost of her enrollment in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Graduate Program as a doctoral student. In addition to an unemployment tuition waiver, Khalil received a check issued on September 24, 2001, for $3425.20 and on October 11, 2001, for $1796.80. Shortly thereafter, Rutgers learned that Khalil was simultaneously enrolled at another educational institution and had been extended the maximum financial aid package there. Accordingly, she could not continue with her studies unless she paid for the cost of her education at Rutgers herself. Because she either was unable to pay these educational costs herself or refused to do so, Rutgers cancelled her registration and vacated her grades for the term. Additionally, Rutgers demanded reimbursement of the $5522 financial aid it advanced.
Although Khalil initially acknowledged receipt of about "[s]eventeen hundred and fifty," she also maintained she had no recollection of either check, nor did she recall endorsing them. In addition to the cancelled checks, Rutgers presented the institution's pay stubs for each check. The following language in bold type was stamped above Khalil's signature: "I UNDERSTAND THAT I AM OBLIGATED TO REIMBURSE RUTGERS UNIVERSITY FOR ANY MONIES TO WHICH I AM NOT ENTITLED DUE TO AN ADJUSTMENT OF CHARGES OR CREDITS. (I.E. FINANCIAL AID)." Khalil signed the first check stub on September 26, 2001, and the second on October 18, 2001.
On appeal, Khalil raises the following points:
THE TRIAL COURT JUDGE ERRED IN HIS JUDGMENT FOR THE PLAINTIFFS BECAUSE THEY FAILED TO PRODUCE CONTRACT, VERIFICATION AND/OR PROOF TO SUPPORT THEIR CLAIMS
THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN DECIDING IN FAVOR OF THE PLAINTIFFS, BECAUSE THEY FAILED TO STATE A CAUSE OF ACTION FOR BREACH OF CONTRACT UNDER THE CONTRACT LAWS. THERE WAS NO CONTRACT BETWEEN THE PLAINTIFF AND THE DEFENDANT
THE LAW SUIT ACTION IS BARRED BY STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS THAT HAS PASSED FOR THE ALLEGED CLAIMS
THE COURT SHOULD HAVE CONSIDERED THE FACTS IN THE CASE AND THE REPRESENTATION OF MY DEFENSE WITH SUPPORTING EVIDENCE AS A PRO-SE LITIGANT
THE TRIAL COURT ABUSED ITS DISCRETION BY ACCEPTING THE COPIES AS EVIDENCE SUBMITTED BY THE PLAINTIFFS
The trial judge found that Rutgers proved two checks were issued to Khalil, and that while she did not dispute receiving the approximate amount of money paid by way of the smaller check, she did not recall receiving the larger check. The judge specifically found the testimony of Rutgers' witness, the Assistant Manager of Student Accounting Services, to be credible and found Khalil's testimony to be unreliable. As he said, "Ms. Khalil's answers were confusing and convoluted, [while] Ms. Harris-Small's were concise and to the point." A trial judge's credibility findings are entitled to particular deference. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470-71 (1999) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161-62 (1964)). See also Klug v. Bridgewater Twp. Planning Bd., 407 N.J. Super. 1, 8-9 (App. Div. 2009).
Although the trial judge's reasons were succinctly stated, his analysis was more than adequate. His ruling was based not only on his observations of the witnesses' demeanor but on common sense. If Khalil recalled receiving the second smaller tuition installment, it was not credible that she could not remember either receiving or endorsing either of the two checks paid to her. It was not credible that she remembered the second smaller tuition installment, but had no recall of the larger sum paid to her three weeks earlier. Generally, findings of a trial judge sitting without a jury "are considered binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence." Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974) (citing N.J. Tpk. Auth. v. Sisselman, 106 N.J. Super. 358 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 54 N.J. 565 (1969)). We will not disturb the judge's factual findings as they were fully supported by the record.
On appeal Khalil raises several points not made during the trial: that plaintiff failed to produce a contract obligating her to repay Rutgers, over and above the documents Rutgers presented establishing the obligation; that Rutgers failed to state a cause of action for breach of contract; that the statute of limitations bars the claim; and that the court abused its discretion to admit the evidence by accepting photocopies of some documents rather than originals. Because these arguments were not raised during the trial, we will not consider them, as we do not review claims of error not brought to a trial judge's attention. Neider v. Royal Indem. Ins. Co., 62 N.J. 229, 234 (1973); Monek v. Borough of S. River, 354 N.J. Super. 442, 456 (App. Div. 2002).
We note that Khalil raised a statute of limitations defense in her answer, however, she made no mention of the issue during the trial. The six-year statute of limitations for contract actions is not applicable here as Rutgers, being a state entity, is subject to the ten-year statute of limitations found at N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.2. See Cohen v. Bd. of Trs. of the Univ. of Med. & Dentistry of N.J., 240 N.J. Super. 188, 194 (Ch. Div. 1989).
Khalil also argues that because she represented herself, a lower standard should have been applied to her pleadings and proofs. This legal argument is inapposite. The court's judgment against Khalil was founded upon its observations of the demeanor of the witnesses, the logical interpretation of the testimony in conjunction with the exhibits and a reasoned application of the law. Khalil's lack of representation does not entitle her to results not warranted by the evidence. In any event, the preponderance of the evidence established that the money Rutgers advanced was received by her and was still owed.
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