On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Essex County, Docket No. DC-040939-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted September 7, 2010
Before Judges Grall and Alvarez.
Plaintiff John Good, Jr., appeals from the dismissal of his claim against Patricia Bobbitt, one of two defendants named in his civil suit for damages engendered by his ownership of 139 Fabian Place, Newark, New Jersey. Good had earlier obtained a judgment against Bobbitt's sister and co-defendant, Brenda Thomas, after trial; although Good had filed suit against the two women for $15,000, he was awarded only $7671. All parties appeared pro se. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
At the trial on February 23, 2009, Good testified that the sisters first contacted him when their home was scheduled to be sold at a sheriff's sale due to a mortgage foreclosure. He agreed to purchase the property for the "upset amount" of approximately $34,000 and the sisters agreed to sign over their rights to redeem in exchange for a payment of $500 each. Additionally, the contract provided that the two women could remain in the property until November 13, 2002. Ultimately, the sisters held over beyond the November date. Good filed a complaint in the Special Civil Part seeking to evict Thomas and Bobbitt on December 9, 2002 and obtained a judgment of eviction executed in February 2003.
Good testified at trial that on January 23, 2003, the sisters, prior to their departure, extensively damaged the property by leaving second-floor faucets in the open position, thereby flooding the house. He explained that he delayed filing against them for the damages because the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had secured $9000 in back taxes owed by Bobbitt by way of a lien against the property. As he put it, "[h]ad I put any pressure on Ms. Bobbitt about all this here and that, I didn't know which way this property was gonna go . . . ." Once he knew the IRS lien was satisfied, he filed suit.
Good's claims included the cost of replacing an alarm system, sheetrock work, pipes, electrical work, and permits. He also sought payment for three months of back rent, as well as legal fees he paid incidental to his purchase of the property at the sheriff's sale. His claims totaled approximately $15,000. As we have said, he was only awarded a portion of the damages that he sought, specifically, $7671 plus court costs. Judgment was entered against both Thomas and Bobbitt.
The judgment entered against Bobbitt was by default as she failed to appear. Three days after the entry of default, Bobbitt filed a notice of motion to vacate. The preprinted form Bobbitt submitted seeking to vacate the default judgment is included in Good's appendix, as is her answer, also dated February 26, 2009. The form does not indicate the reasons proffered in support of the application. Good objected, but on April 17, 2009, the default judgment was set aside.
On June 11, 2009, all three parties appeared in court. Good attempted to retry the case against Thomas and Bobbitt, despite the fact that Thomas told the judge, and Good did not dispute this, that the judgment for $7671 plus costs had been satisfied in full. The court dismissed the proceedings since the requested relief arose from a contract signed October 25, 2002, and the court perceived the six-year statute of limitations found at N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1 to have expired. Good filed an application for reconsideration on June 12, 2009, and said in his moving papers, among other things, that he was seeking to "vacate judgment for the defendants [and] restore for trial." That application was denied pursuant to Rule 4:49-2 and the entire controversy doctrine. We agree with the result and affirm the outcome, however, we do not agree with the trial judge's reasons. See Isko v. Planning Bd. of Twp. of Livingston, 51 N.J. 162, 175 (1968).
The entire controversy doctrine is inapplicable because its purpose is to avoid fragmentary, piecemeal litigation. See e.g., Falcone v. Middlesex County Med. Soc'y, 47 N.J. 92, 93-95 (1966). But in this instance the matter was completely litigated, albeit with the participation of only one defendant, and a judgment, since paid in full, awarded to Good. He may not have been satisfied with the outcome of the trial, as the amount of the judgment was approximately half of the sum he demanded; nonetheless, he had his day in court. Just because Bobbitt was subsequently able to vacate the default entered against her due to improper service or some other reason does not enable Good to revisit causes of action which were fully tried.
Good is barred from relitigating his case because: "[a] cause of action once finally determined between parties on the merits by a tribunal having jurisdiction cannot be relitigated by those parties . . . in a new proceeding." Roberts v. Goldner, 79 N.J. 82, 85 (1979) (citations omitted).
Good's claims against both sisters were fully adjudicated on February 23, 2009. He did not proffer evidence at any point which would lead a court to distinguish as between the two defendants. The contract obliged both equally, and Good had no factual knowledge of who, if either sister, caused the damage to his property. The trial court found them liable for the damage to the property solely on the basis that when the damage occurred, the premises were still subject to their occupancy. Just because Bobbitt vacated the default against her did not mean that Good was thereby afforded a new opportunity to retry the matter in the hopes he would receive a greater monetary award. He had his day in court on February 23, 2009 and did not appeal that outcome. When Good returned to court ...