March 1, 2012
PEDIATRIC SURGICAL ASSOCIATES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
WILLIAM J. BRENNAN AND JENNIE J. BRENNAN, N/K/A JENNIE J. CHANDLER, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Passaic County, Docket No. DC-18061-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 2, 2011 -
Before Judges Lihotz and St. John.
Defendant William J. Brennan appeals from the order of the Special Civil Part entered October 22, 2010, denying his motion to vacate a July 28, 2010 default judgment. We reverse.
Plaintiff Pediatric Surgical Associates brought an action against defendant and his former wife, Jennie J. Brennan (n/k/a Jennie J. Chandler), for non-payment of doctors' fees incurred for the treatment of Chandler's minor son, J.A.
Trial was held in the Special Civil Part on February 4, 2010. Brennan appeared pro se. Plaintiff's office and billing manager, Vicki Petrucci, was the only witness called by plaintiff. Petrucci testified that services were provided for J.A. on July 23, 2005 and December 21, 2005, and that an outstanding balance of $1920 for services rendered remained unpaid. Petrucci stated the insurance submitted was procured by defendant, with J.A. as a named insured. She confirmed that a physician employed by plaintiff performed services for the son. On cross-examination, Petrucci admitted she did not know who brought J.A. to the emergency room, whether the insurer made payments to Chandler, or whether Chandler and Brennan were married on the date service was provided.
Brennan testified that J.A. was Chandler's son and the offspring of Chandler and Brian Archibald, who at that time was alive. Brennan stated that on the treatment dates, J.A. was living with his mother, not with him. He further testified that when service was provided, he was separated from Chandler and had executed a property settlement agreement (PSA) on September 3, 2005. Their divorce became final in the spring of 2006. Brennan stated that the PSA required he keep health insurance for J.A. until the divorce was finalized, and that Chandler, not he, was responsible for her son's medical expenses. The PSA provided he would be responsible for his own children's medical expenses.
Brennan testified that he never entered into a contract for plaintiff to provide services to J.A. He further stated that he never guaranteed any payments on behalf of either Chandler or J.A. Brennan did not bring a copy of the PSA to court, but believed Chandler received a check from the insurance company, cashed it, and kept the proceeds. As of the trial date, plaintiff had obtained a judgment against Chandler for the services rendered to J.A.
At the conclusion of testimony, the trial judge stated, "I am going to find on behalf of the defendant . . . conditioned upon two things. You [Brennan] sending me a copy of your property distribution with a . . . copy to counsel. And you contact your carrier to see if they ever issued a check." The judge gave defendant a week to satisfy these conditions.
The judge then asked plaintiff's attorney whether there was anything in the file indicating that Brennan assumed responsibility as a guarantor. Counsel responded that Brennan was "the only one that could collect the money for us through the insurance." The judge noted that if Brennan and Chandler's PSA severed any obligation that Brennan had to pay for J.A.'s medical expenses, there would be no liability. When Petrucci asked what the consequences would be if Brennan did not provide the requested documents, the judge responded, "I'll cross that bridge, I guess, when I get to it."
On February 11, 2010, Brennan sent a letter to the court explaining he did not have a copy of his original PSA, but was enclosing an unsigned copy which he received from Chandler's attorney. Additionally, he advised the court that he phoned the insurer and requested the required documents, which would arrive after at least a week.
On June 12, 2010, plaintiff filed a motion requesting that the court
enter a default judgment, asserting that Brennan failed to comply with
the court's deadline of February 18, 2010, to produce the documents in
question. Brennan opposed the motion and filed a certification in
opposition on July 7, 2010. He asserted he was not liable to
plaintiff, and that there was no basis for plaintiff's counsel to
request, or the trial judge to enter a default judgment against him.
On July 28, 2010, the court entered a default judgment*fn1
in the amount of $1970.54 in favor of plaintiff. The judgment
noted that it was unopposed.
Brennan filed a motion for reconsideration of the default judgment, which was denied on October 22, 2010. The court noted it considered Brennan's earlier opposition and may have erroneously indicated the application was unopposed. The judge denied defendant's motion to vacate the judgment, stating Brennan never provided the documents the court requested which would corroborate his position. The judge then determined that there was no basis to enter an order in Brennan's favor under Rule 4:49-2. It is from this order that Brennan appeals.
We do not know what the trial judge considered in denying Brennan's motion because, contrary to the requirements of Rule 1:7-4, he made no findings of fact, other than Brennan's failure to produce certain documents, and stated no conclusions of law.
With regard to a denial of Brennan's motion for reconsideration, we have recognized that [r]econsideration should be utilized only for those cases which fall into that narrow corridor in which either 1) the Court has expressed its decision based upon a palpably incorrect or irrational basis, or 2) it is obvious that the Court either did not consider, or failed to appreciate the significance of probative, competent evidence . . . . [Cummings v. Bahr, 295 N.J. Super. 374, 384 (App. Div. 1996) (quoting D'Atria v. D'Atria, 242 N.J. Super. 392, 401-02 (Ch. Div. 1990)).]
This case falls into that narrow corridor, as the trial judge failed to consider the significance of the probative, competent, credible, undisputed evidence offered by Brennan.
A trial court's legal interpretation of the meaning of a contract is subject to de novo appellate review. Fastenberg v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 309 N.J. Super. 415, 420 (App. Div. 1998). It is well settled that "[a] contract arises from offer and acceptance, and must be sufficiently definite 'that the performance to be rendered by each party can be ascertained with reasonable certainty.'" Weichert Co. Realtors v. Ryan, 128 N.J. 427, 435 (1992) (quoting W. Caldwell v. Caldwell, 26 N.J. 9, 24-25 (1958)). To be enforceable, a contract must "agree on essential terms and manifest an intention to be bound by those terms." Ibid. Assuming the offer contains definite terms, there must also be "'an unqualified acceptance to conclude the manifestation of assent.'" Id. at 435. This manifestation of assent may be communicated through oral or written communication, or through other conduct creating a contract implied-in-fact. Id. at 436.
Here, plaintiff failed to meet its burden of proof that it entered into a contract with defendant. Plaintiff did not show Brennan sought the medical services or that he assented to be responsible for the medical costs for J.A. The mere fact that Brennan was the party through whom insurance coverage was obtained is insufficient to create the necessary obligation for payment. Plaintiff's proofs are insufficient to sustain a judgment based on a breach of contract.
Additionally, the third count of plaintiff's complaint seems to be grounded in quantum meruit. It asserts that plaintiff is entitled to be compensated for "the reasonable value of . . . services rendered."
"Quantum meruit is a form of quasi-contractual recovery and 'rests on the equitable principle that a person shall not be allowed to enrich himself [or herself] unjustly at the expense of another.'" Goldberger, Seligsohn & Shinrod, P.A. v. Baumgarten, 378 N.J. Super. 244, 252 (App. Div. 2005) (quoting Weichert Co., supra, 128 N.J. at 437). Simply stated, "[r]ecovery is permitted in quasi-contract because one party has conferred a benefit on the other, and in the circumstances, it would be unjust to deny recovery." Id. at 253. For a plaintiff to recover under that theory, he or she must prove: "1) that the services were performed in good faith, 2) the services were accepted by the person for whom they were rendered, 3) plaintiff reasonably expected compensation for performing the services, and 4) the value of the services is reasonable." Ibid.
Here, there was no allegation that plaintiff performed medical services for Brennan's benefit. Because he did not accept medical services or incur any obligation to pay for services rendered to J.A., plaintiff's quantum meruit claim also fails.
The trial judge's initial decision that "I am going to find on behalf of the defendant" is supported by the record and any conditions subsequent purporting to support a default judgment against Brennan have no basis in fact or in law. The trial judge's entry of default judgment was in error and not based on grounds conceivably capable of warranting a denial of defendant's motion. Plaintiff failed to meet its burden of proof at trial. Therefore, we reverse, and order vacation of the default judgment as well as an entry of judgment in favor of defendant, as plaintiff failed to prove defendant was responsible for the medical costs.