On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Essex County, Docket No. SC-3367-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fisher and Grall.
Defendant Ali Abdi appeals a judgment entered following a bench trial in the Small Claims Section on plaintiff Alexander Holdings, L.L.C.'s complaint. He contends that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to grant him an adjournment to allow him to file a counterclaim and transfer the case to the Special Civil Part. We agree and reverse.
Alexander Holdings filed a complaint in the Small Claims Section on September 3, 2010, alleging that Abdi failed to pay the balance due on a plumbing-services contract. The summons served on Abdi informs him that he does not have to file a written answer, but if he disputes the complaint and wants the court to hear his side of the case, he must come to court on the listed trial date.
Abdi and a representative of Alexander Holdings appeared for trial on October 6, 2010. Abdi immediately told the trial judge he wanted an adjournment to file a counterclaim for consumer fraud and poor workmanship. He stated that although he was not certain of his damages, they were "$6,000, $7,000, or even more" and therefore in excess of the amount recoverable in the Small Claims Section. The trial judge asked Abdi if he had previously filed a counterclaim, and, when Abdi said he had not, told him that the matter would be tried over his objection. A bench trial was held, and the trial judge awarded Alexander Holdings $922. Abdi's proposed counterclaim was not adjudicated.
On appeal, Abdi argues that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to adjourn the trial in order to allow him to file a counterclaim and transfer the case to the Special Civil Part. We agree.
Due to the summary nature of small claims proceedings, a defendant in the Small Claims Section is prohibited from filing an answer. R. 6:3-1. This rule has the effect of prohibiting - or at least deterring - a defendant from filing a formal counterclaim, because a counterclaim is normally included as part of a defendant's answer. See R. 4:7-1; R. 6:3-1 (a defendant must file an answer in the Special Civil Part, "including therein any counterclaim," within thirty-five days after completion of service). But see R. 6:11 (contemplating the filing of counterclaims in the Small Claims Section by directing that when a counterclaim for a sum in excess of the monetary limit of the Small Claims Section is filed, the action shall be transferred to the Special Civil Part). Moreover, the summons sent to Abdi by the court informed him that he need not submit a written response to the complaint. Rather, he could simply come to court on the trial date and tell the judge his side of the story.
As a result of the Court Rules and summons, Abdi had no reason to suspect that he would have been required to file any pleadings before the trial date in order to have his counterclaim heard. Yet that is what the judge demanded of him, and it was an abuse of discretion to do so.
We therefore vacate the judgment entered against Abdi and remand. On remand, the trial court shall give Abdi a reasonable period of time to file an answer and counterclaim, and, after they and the appropriate filing fee are received, shall transfer the case. Of course, we do not pass on the merits of Abdi's claims. We hold only that he should have had an opportunity to present them.
Reversed and remanded. We do not retain jurisdiction.
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