On Appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. DC-10098-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fuentes, Graves, and Harris.
In April 2010, plaintiffs Erin Leitner and Sonia Marquez filed a deceptively simple breach of contract complaint*fn1 against two individuals, defendants Cindy Williams and Ernest Williams, seeking remedies for their alleged failure to perform a contract to provide education and training in the field of diagnostic medical sonography. The complaint sought damages "adding up to [$]3600 for Sonia [and] [$3300] for Erin," stemming from their futile payment of tuition. More than one year later, on May 2, 2011, after at least five court appearances, the Special Civil Part entered judgments against only appellant Ernest Williams, pursuant to the Consumer Fraud Act (CFA), N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 to -20, in the amount of (1) $10,200 plus costs in favor of Leitner and (2) $10,800 plus costs in favor of Marquez.*fn2 We reverse and remand for a new trial because we have no confidence that the parties received the full measure of due process to which they were entitled, which constitutes a miscarriage of justice under the law.
The underlying facts of the parties' dispute are less significant than the tortured procedural process they endured. Part of our difficulty in reconstructing the facts is due to the informality of the trial process. Instead of allowing each witness to testify in turn, and then be subjected to cross-examination, the trial court engaged in an unstructured and amorphous exchange -- merely an under-oath conversation -- among the four parties. Although this may have suited the trial court's goal of efficiency, it has rendered effective appellate review impossible.
In short, plaintiffs enrolled in a technical school once operated by the individual defendants, which possibly was owned by Imagine the Future, LLC.*fn3 Williams denied ownership, claiming only to have been a member of the LLC that operated the facility.
After paying tuition and attending a year of classes throughout 2009, plaintiffs were set to begin their required externships. They claimed that in January 2010, the school was sold to a new operator and soon closed, leaving them without the opportunity to complete their course of study. When they tried to transfer their credits to a comparable school, they were unable to do so and were required to repeat the entire curriculum.
Williams agreed that the school was sold, but contended that its successor -- PC Tech Learning Center, LLC -- kept the facility open and operating, but plaintiffs elected to transfer anyway. Williams proffered documentary evidence -- "certificates of students who graduated in 2010" (the certificate evidence) -- to prove that the school continued in operation. Although the trial court did not expressly refuse to review Williams's certificate evidence, in the tumult of the proceeding, those certificates were not examined.
At the conclusion of the give-and-take, none of which included permitting the pro se parties to cross-examine each other, the court made the following findings:
I credit the testimony of the two plaintiffs that they were at a meeting with Mr. Williams, the CEO of . . . Imagine the Future, LLC, and that Mr. Williams told them, introduced them to the new owners of the PC Tech Learning Center[, LLC].
I find that there was never a legitimate sale of Imagine the Future, LLC.
[T]here's no evidence that [PC Tech Learning Center, LLC] ever succeeded to the license of Imagine the Future, LLC, and that's essentially the only, the only asset which is worth anything of the ...