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Dominic Belmonte v. New Jersey Transit Rail Operations

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


June 7, 2011

DOMINIC BELMONTE, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
NEW JERSEY TRANSIT RAIL OPERATIONS, INC. (NJ TRANSIT), DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-3377-09.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted May 10, 2011

Before Judges Payne and Koblitz.

Plaintiff Dominic Belmonte appeals the trial court's May 14, 2010 order granting defendant New Jersey Transit Rail Operations, Inc. (NJ Transit) summary judgment and its June 25, 2010 order denying reconsideration of that order. After reviewing the record, we reverse and remand to the trial court because the reasons provided by the trial court were insufficient to allow us to evaluate the merits of the appeal.

Plaintiff, an employee of NJ Transit, brought this action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C.A. §§ 51 to 60, to recover damages for shoulder injuries he sustained on December 4, 2007, when he slipped on ice while carrying a fifty-pound bag of salt down the cleaned and salted steps of the Chatham train station. He was wearing rubber shoe protectors, "grippies," supplied by NJ Transit and was working with a crew assigned to remove snow from train stations, platforms, steps and sidewalks. Plaintiff claimed in his complaint that NJ Transit's negligence in requiring him to carry heavy bags of salt down stairs caused his injury. NJ Transit moved for summary judgment.

Although defendant requested oral argument, the trial court decided defendant's motion for summary judgment on the papers,*fn1 in favor of defendant, writing reasons on the order as follows:

Court finding no genuine issue of material fact, and finding that under FELA case law the railroad has no liability.

After plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration without requesting oral argument, the court reviewed the papers and wrote its reason for denial on the order as follows:

Ordered that the motion for reconsideration is DENIED, the Court finding that the plaintiff failed to provide new information or controlling decisions . . . which the Court overlooked or erred.

Plaintiff raises the following issues on appeal:

1. STANDARD OF REVIEW UNDER FELA AND NEW JERSEY LAW FOR DETERMINING THAT THE COURT ERRED IN GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT.

a. THE GRANTING OF SUMMARY JUDGMENT WAS NOT WARRANTED UNDER FEDERAL SUBSTANTIVE LAW REGARDING THE FELA.

b. WHERE THERE IS EVIDENCE OF ALTERNATIVE METHODS OF DOING A JOB, THE QUESTION OF WHETHER DEFENDANT'S CHOICE WAS PRUDENT [IS] FOR A JURY.

c. THE GRANTING OF SUMMARY JUDGMENT WAS NOT WARRANTED UNDER NEW JERSEY LAW.

2. PLAINTIFF HAS ESTABLISHED THAT GENUINE ISSUES OF MATERIAL FACTS EXIST IN THIS ACTION AND THERE IS SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE FOR A JURY TO DETERMINE THAT DEFENDANT WAS NEGLIGENT, THEREFORE DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DENIED.

The trial court's findings of fact and conclusions of law fall short of those required to allow us to review the reasons for the court's decision to grant summary judgment. Although not specifically raised by plaintiff as an issue on appeal, a trial court has a duty to make findings of fact and conclusions of law "on every motion decided by written orders that are appealable as of right." R. 1:7-4(a); R. 4:46-2(c). Failure to perform this duty "'constitutes a disservice to the litigants, the attorneys and the appellate court.'" Curtis v. Finneran, 83 N.J. 563, 569-70 (1980) (quoting Kenwood Assocs. v. Bd. of Adjustment of Englewood, 141 N.J. Super. 1, 4 (App. Div. 1976)). Moreover, "naked conclusions do not satisfy the purpose of [Rule] 1:7-4." Curtis, supra, 83 N.J. at 570. "Rather, the trial court must state clearly its factual findings and correlate them with the relevant legal conclusions." Ibid. "The absence of adequate findings . . . necessitates a reversal." Heinl v. Heinl, 287 N.J. Super. 337, 347 (App. Div. 1996). We have noted that "[t]he duty to find facts and state conclusions of law is explicit in R[ule] 1:7-4, iterated in connection with motions for summary judgment in R[ule] 4:46-2, and mandated where there is an appeal by R[ule] 2:5-1(b)." Matter of Will of Marinus, 201 N.J. Super. 329, 339 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 101 N.J. 332 (1985); see also Pardo v. Dominguez, 382 N.J. Super. 489, 491-92 (App. Div. 2006) (reversing summary judgment, in part, due to the trial court's failure to provide reasons); Raspantini, supra, 364 N.J. Super. at 533-34 (reversing orders granting summary judgment and denying reconsideration "to ensure that the parties and, in the event of a further appeal, the court may have the benefit of findings of fact and conclusions of law consistent with our analysis of the applicable rules"). "Even where a motion is determined without oral argument pursuant to R[ule] 1:6-2(d) that does not excuse a trial judge from performing this vital function." Matter of Marinus, supra, 201 N.J. Super. at 339.

The trial court also did not amplify its reasons within fifteen days of the appeal as permitted by the Rules. R. 2:5-1(b); see Allstate Ins. Co. v. Fisher, 408 N.J. Super. 289, 300 (App. Div. 2009); State in the Interest of J.R., 244 N.J. Super. 630, 635 (App. Div. 1990).

We therefore remand to the trial court for reconsideration of its decision to grant summary judgment, after allowing oral argument, and for the court to provide a full explanation of its findings of fact and conclusions of law. We express no opinion regarding the appropriate resolution of this motion.

Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

A-5440-09T2


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