October 9, 2012
SAMUEL SCHUYLER, TODD SCHUYLER, JEFFREY SCHUYLER, RONA SCHUYLER, AND HAROLD SCHUYLER, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
EILEEN MELTZER, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. DJ-094085-00.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued April 18, 2012
Before Judges Fuentes, Graves, and Koblitz.
Plaintiffs Samuel, Todd, Jeffrey, Rona, and Harold Schuyler appeal from a June 24, 2011 order denying their motion to vacate an order entered on January 10, 2003, and to reinstate a 1994 Florida judgment filed in New Jersey pursuant to the Uniform Enforcement of Foreign Judgments Act (UEFJA), N.J.S.A. 2A:49A-25 to -33. The January 10, 2003 order granted defendant Eileen Meltzer's motion to declare the Florida judgment "void and unenforceable in the State of New Jersey." For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
The current dispute arises from an unsuccessful will contest brought by Meltzer in the State of Florida in 1992.*fn1 After deciding the case in favor of the Schuylers, the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in Dade County, Florida, entered a judgment against Meltzer for taxable costs. The judgment was entered on February 10, 1994, in the amount of $2500 with interest at the rate of twelve percent per annum. In accordance with the UEFJA, plaintiffs docketed the Florida judgment with the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County on May 17, 2000.
In 2002, defendant moved to declare the Florida judgment void and unenforceable. In the motion caption, defendant listed only Samuel Schuyler as plaintiff, and did not indicate the other four parties to the dispute. Defendant raised a number of issues in her supporting certification and alleged the 1994 Florida judgment was void and unenforceable in New Jersey "because it was obtained without notice and my being given an opportunity to be heard." Defendant's motion was unopposed, and it was granted on January 10, 2003. In granting the motion, the court noted there was "some doubt" as to the enforceability of the Florida judgment.
According to plaintiffs, they were never served with defendant's motion or the 2003 order. They became aware of the order in 2010 when their attorney ordered an updated judgment search and discovered the 1994 Florida judgment was no longer of record. Upon further inquiry, plaintiffs obtained a copy of the January 10, 2003 order, together with defendant's supporting certification from the clerk of the court.
On May 25, 2011, plaintiffs moved to vacate the January 10, 2003 order, arguing they were never served with defendant's motion. In a supporting certification, plaintiff Rona Schuyler stated: "I never received any notice that there was ever a motion made to vacate the cost judgment in Florida, or in New Jersey." Plaintiff Samuel Schuyler provided a similar certification. In addition, plaintiffs' New Jersey attorney of record, Adam Schneider, certified he "never received any of the 2003 moving papers, and [he] never received a copy of the order when it was entered in the matter in 2003."
The same trial judge that entered the January 10, 2003 order heard plaintiffs' motion to vacate the order on June 24, 2011. The judge's findings were limited to the following:
I am not convinced that I erred in 2003. In addition I think that it's just too many years later. There's too much laches.
I am not positive that I'm right . . . . I admit to that. I'm not positive I was right in 2003, but I was concerned about the bankruptcy aspect and the lack of notice, and I don't think I've read anything that convinces me I was wrong then.
In addition, of course, it would be tougher for the other side to come up with evidence . . . . I'm not vacating my January 10, 2003 order.
Among other things, plaintiffs contend on appeal the June 24, 2011 order should be reversed because: (1) the Florida judgment "was obtained in full compliance with the rules of the State of Florida"; (2) the 2003 order was entered without notice to plaintiffs; and, (3) the equitable doctrine of laches does not apply. After considering these arguments in light of the record and the applicable law, we reverse the June 24, 2011 order and remand the matter to the trial court for additional proceedings.
The UEFJA is New Jersey's means for enforcing foreign judgments, thereby "discharging its Full Faith and Credit obligations" under Article IV, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. Singh v. Sidana, 387 N.J. Super. 380, 381-82 (App. Div. 2006), certif. denied, 189 N.J. 428 (2007). The requirements of the Full Faith and Credit Clause "are predicated upon the judgment debtor having been accorded due process in the forum state." Maine v. SeKap, S.A. Greek Coop. Cigarette Mfg. Co., 392 N.J. Super. 227, 235 (App. Div. 2007). "The minimum requirements of due process of law are notice and an opportunity to be heard." Klier v. Sordoni Skanska Constr. Co., 337 N.J. Super. 76, 84 (App. Div. 2001). A denial of due process occurs when the state rendering judgment fails to provide adequate notice to a judgment debtor. SeKap, supra, 392 N.J. Super. at 235. A trial judge is empowered to vacate a foreign judgment docketed in New Jersey under the UEFJA if a defendant demonstrates such a denial of due process. See id. at 242.
In addition, it is well settled that a trial court must "find the facts and state its conclusions of law thereon in all actions tried without a jury on every motion decided by a written order that is appealable as of right." R. 1:7-4(a). Failure to perform this duty "constitutes a disservice to the litigants, the attorneys and the appellate court." Curtis v. Finneran, 83 N.J. 563, 567-70 (1980) (quoting Kenwood Assocs. v. Bd. of Adjustment of Englewood, 141 N.J. Super. 1, 4 (App. Div. 1976)). A trial court may not make "naked conclusions," but must clearly state its factual findings and "correlate them with the relevant legal conclusions." Id. at 570. Moreover, as this court has repeatedly emphasized, "trial judges cannot resolve material factual disputes upon conflicting affidavits and certifications." Harrington v. Harrington, 281 N.J. Super. 39, 47 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 142 N.J. 455 (1995).
In this case, plaintiffs contend they were never served with defendant's motion in 2003 to declare the Florida judgment unenforceable in New Jersey and, therefore, the court erred when it denied their motion to vacate the January 10, 2003 order. However, plaintiffs' claims are disputed by both defendant and her attorney. Under these circumstances, we conclude that an evidentiary hearing is required to resolve the conflicting allegations. Accordingly, the June 24, 2011 order is reversed, and the matter is remanded to the Law Division for a plenary hearing.
Reversed and remanded. We do not retain jurisdiction.