NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 21, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Morris County, Docket DC-9566-11.
Amy Gonzalez, appellant, pro se.
Respondents Stanley Moland Little Friends Day School, Inc., and Paula Fetchen have not filed a brief.
Before Judges Messano and Ostrer.
In this appeal, we are asked to consider whether plaintiff Amy Gonzalez's Special Civil Part complaint seeking money damages for alleged breaches of a commercial lease with defendant Paula Fetchen, also known as Paula Stanley, doing business as Stanley Moland Little Friends Day School, Inc., was properly dismissed based upon the entire controversy doctrine (ECD). In considering the propriety of granting a motion to dismiss in such circumstances, we examine the record in a light most favorable to plaintiff. Alpha Beauty Distributors, Inc. v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., 425
N.J. Super. 94, 96 (App. Div. 2012) (citation omitted).
Plaintiff purchased commercial property from Kenneth W. Battiato, and, pursuant to the sale, was assigned Battiato's interests in a long-term lease with defendant that permitted operation of a "children's nursery/day school and related activities" on the premises. The lease commenced on July 1, 1999 and terminated on June 30, 2011. Defendant continued to operate her business pursuant to the lease, but in June 2009, she ceased paying rent to plaintiff. Plaintiff filed a summary landlord-tenant action and obtained a default judgment for possession in October 2009.
The following month, plaintiff filed a complaint seeking money damages for unpaid rent for the months of June, July and August 2009. Plaintiff obtained a default judgment. In March 2010, plaintiff filed a second complaint in the Special Civil Part seeking money damages for unpaid rent for the months of September, October and November 2009. Again, default judgment was entered in plaintiff's favor.
Plaintiff filed the subject complaint in the Special Civil Part in September of 2011, seeking damages for unpaid rent for the months of December 2010, and January and February 2011.Defendant filed an answer and counterclaim, alleging "[p]laintiff previously sued th[is] same [d]efendant . . . and [this] action is barred by the [ECD]." Defendant sought "damages in the amount of $15, 000" arising out of "additional costs in having to re-litigate previously asserted claims" due to "[p]laintiff's multiplicity of lawsuits . . . ." Before trial, defendant orally moved to dismiss the complaint based upon the ECD.
After considering oral argument and reserving decision, the judge granted defendant's motion and dismissed the complaint. In his written statement of reasons, citing Rule 4:30A, the judge determined "there is no question that the current cause of action stems from the same transaction as the prior cases filed by . . . [p]laintiff." The judge posited the issue as, "whether the present cause of action accrued at the same time" as plaintiff's prior complaints. He concluded that plaintiff "chose not once, but twice, to bring [c]omplaints . . . rather than sue for the entire amount in the Law Division." The judge further stated, "It is clear that the present cause of action accrued at the same time as the prior [c]omplaints and . . . [p]laintiff could have sought to collect on all the rent in one action without the constraint of the limitations of damages in the Special Civil Part." Since "plaintiff did not reserve the right to bring further actions, " "no exception to the [ECD] is applicable in the present case." This appeal followed.Plaintiff argues that the judge "failed to recognize the equitable considerations of the [ECD], " and "the [ECD] does not bar a subsequent action for rent that had not accrued." Based upon the particular facts of the case, we agree with plaintiff's second point and reverse.
The ECD reflects our courts' "long-held preference that related claims and matters arising among related parties be adjudicated together rather than in separate, successive, fragmented, or piecemeal litigation." Kent Motor Cars, Inc. v. Reynolds and Reynolds, Co., 207 N.J. 428, 443 (2011). "Underlying the [ECD] are the twin goals of ensuring fairness to parties and achieving economy of judicial resources." Ibid.
The ECD "requires parties to a controversy before a court to assert all claims known to them that stem from the same transactional facts . . . ." Joel v. Morrocco, 147 N.J. 546, 548 (1997) (citation omitted). However, the ECD "should not be viewed as encouraging or requiring the filing of premature or ...