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Kamienski v. State

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

August 16, 2017

PAUL KAMIENSKI, Plaintiff-Appellant/ Cross-Respondent,
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY, Defendant-Respondent/ Cross-Appellant.

          Argued November 29, 2016

         On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-2106-10.

          Timothy J. Mclnnis (Mclnnis Law) of the New York bar, admitted pro hac vice, argued the cause for appellant/cross-respondent (Law Office of Jerome A. Ballarotto, and Mr. Mclnnis, attorneys; Mr. Ballarotto and Mr. Mclnnis, on the brief).

          Peter D. Wint, Assistant Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent/cross-appellant (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa Dutton Schaffer, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Mr. Wint, on the briefs).

          Before Judges Messano, Espinosa and Guadagno.


          ESPINOSA, J.A.D.

         This case presents us with questions of first impression regarding the interpretation of provisions of the Mistaken Imprisonment Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 52:4C-1 to -7, relating to eligibility, the burden of proof, damages and "reasonable attorney fees" recoverable under the Act.

         Plaintiff was charged in a single indictment and convicted of two counts of purposeful murder, felony murder, conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute and related offenses. His convictions for murder and felony murder were set aside after his petition for habeas corpus was granted. His drug conspiracy conviction remained undisturbed. Plaintiff was released from prison and commenced this action against defendant, State of New Jersey, Department of the Treasury (State), under the Act, seeking more than $6, 000, 000 in damages and $1 million in attorney fees. Plaintiff's appeal from the $433, 230 judgment in his favor and the State's cross-appeal present us with questions of statutory interpretation, specifically (1) whether plaintiff was ineligible under N.J.S.A. 52:4C-6 because he was not an "innocent person" due to his drug conspiracy conviction, and (2) whether the decision granting plaintiff's habeas corpus petition satisfied his burden under N.J.S.A. 52:4C-3(b) to establish by clear and convincing evidence "he did not commit the crime for which he was convicted" as a matter of law. Because we conclude a remand is necessary, we also address how damages should be calculated under the Act prior to its 2013 amendment[1] and the reasonable attorney fees that may be recovered under N.J.S.A. 52:4C-5(b) to provide guidance to the trial court in the event such issues are reached on remand.

         To recover under the Act, a claimant must

establish the following by clear and convincing evidence:
a. That he was convicted of a crime and subsequently sentenced to a term of imprisonment, served all or any part of his sentence; and
b. He did not commit the crime for which he was convicted; and
c. He did not commit or suborn perjury, fabricate evidence, or by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction. Neither a confession or admission later found to be false shall constitute committing or suborning perjury, fabricating evidence, or causing or bringing about his conviction under this subsection; and
d. He did not plead guilty to the crime for which he was convicted.

         [ N.J.S.A. 52:4C-3.]


         In November 1988, a jury convicted plaintiff of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, two counts of first-degree murder, and one count of felony murder. The trial judge entered a judgment of acquittal, notwithstanding the verdict, in favor of plaintiff on the murder and felony murder counts. Following appeal, we reinstated the murder convictions. State v. Kamienski, 254 N.J.Super. 75 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 130 N.J. 18 (1992). Plaintiff was resentenced and received two life sentences, with thirty years parole ineligibility, and a consecutive flat twelve-year term on the drug conspiracy conviction.

         Plaintiff filed a habeas corpus petition, challenging only his murder convictions. The United States District Court denied his petition; the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed and ordered his petition be granted, stating, "no reasonable juror could conclude that the evidence admitted against [plaintiff] at his trial established that he was guilty of murder or felony murder beyond a reasonable doubt." Kamienski v. Hendricks, 332 Fed. Appx. 740, 740-41 (3rd Cir. 2009), cert, denied, 558 U.S. 1147, 130 S.Ct. 1168, 175 L.Ed.2d 972 (2010). Plaintiff was released from prison in June 2 009, after serving more than twenty years.

         Plaintiff filed a verified complaint for compensation under the Act, seeking $5, 913, 671.30 in damages and $1, 000, 000 in attorney fees and costs incurred in his initial defense on the charges at trial and all subsequent proceedings. The damages sought represented the amount of the adjusted gross income plaintiff earned in the year prior to his incarceration ($143, 307) multiplied by the number of years he was incarcerated.

         The State moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing plaintiff's drug conspiracy conviction rendered him ineligible for recovery pursuant to N.J.S.A. 52:4C-6(a). Plaintiff moved for declaratory relief, asking the court to adopt his proposed interpretation of the Act. The trial judge denied both the State's motion and plaintiff's motion for declaratory relief. The court denied plaintiff's motion for reconsideration and determined further that "reasonable attorney fees" under N.J.S.A. 52:4C-5(b) were limited to fees incurred in the compensation action.

         Plaintiff moved for summary judgment, contending he was entitled to compensation under the Act as a matter of law. Paragraph 4 of the Statement of Material Facts submitted pursuant to Rule 4:46-2(a) states: "Plaintiff did not commit the murder crimes for which he had been convicted." The only support in the record cited for that statement is "March 4, 2011 hearing, "[2] the date of the trial court's decision denying the State's motion to dismiss. In opposition, the State admitted, "the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit determined that there was insufficient evidence to support convictions of murder against the plaintiff" and asserted he failed to establish, by clear and convincing evidence, that he did not commit the murders.

         The trial court granted plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and awarded him $343, 000. Plaintiff's request for reasonable attorney fees, initially denied without prejudice, was later granted after a certification of services was submitted, resulting in an award of $90, 230.


         In his appeal, plaintiff argues the trial court erred in interpreting how damages are to be calculated and the scope of reasonable attorney fees under the Act, N.J.S.A. 52:4C-5(a)-(b). In its cross-appeal, the State argues the trial court erred in interpreting N.J.S.A. 52:4C-6(a), finding plaintiff was not barred from recovery under the Act. The State also argues the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to plaintiff, based upon a misinterpretation of N.J.S.A. 52:4C-3(b).

         The interpretation of a statute is an issue of law, which we review de novo. D.W. v. R.W., 212 N.J. 232, 245-46 (2012). Our "fundamental objective ... is to identify and promote the Legislature's intent." Parsons ex rel. Parsons v. Mullica Twp. Bd. of Educ, 226 N.J. 297, 307 (2016). We look first to the "plain language chosen by the Legislature." State v. Gandhi, 2 01 N.J. 161, 176 (2010). "If the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, and susceptible to only one interpretation, courts should apply the statute as written without resort to extrinsic interpretive aids." In re Passaic Cty. Utils. Auth., 164 N.J. 270, 299 (2000).

         When, as here, statutory provisions are susceptible to more than one interpretation, we look to extrinsic evidence to inform our analysis, "including legislative history and committee reports." Parsons, supra, 226 N.J. at 308 (quoting State v. Marguez, 202 N.J. 485, 500 (2010)); Wilson ex rel. Manzano v. City of Jersey City, 209 N.J. 558, 572 (2012). Extrinsic evidence is also properly considered "if a literal reading of the statute would yield an absurd result, particularly one at odds with the overall statutory scheme." Ibid.; see also DiProspero v. Penn, 183 N.J. 477, 493 (2005); e.g., Perez v. Zagami, LLC, 218 N.J. 202');">218 N.J. 202, 214-16 (2014).

         We are mindful that the Act is both remedial legislation and, in part, a waiver of sovereign immunity. Mills v. N.J. Dep't of the Treas., 435 N.J.Super. 69, 77 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 218 N.J. 2 73 (2014). These dual attributes bring competing standards into play for how the statute should be construed, liberally or strictly.

         Other jurisdictions have not adopted a uniform approach in reviewing their own wrongful incarceration statutes. Many courts have expressed the view that their statutes should be construed liberally to effect their remedial purpose. See, e.g., State v. Hill, 125 So.3d 1200, 1203 (La. Ct. App.) (interpreting La. Stat. Ann. § 15:572.8 (2017)), writ denied, 129 So.3d 536 (La. 2013); Estate of Jerry Jacobs v. State, 775 S.E.2d 873, 876 ( N.C. Ct. App.) (interpreting N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 148-82 to -84 (2016)), review denied, 778 S.E.2d 93 ( N.C. 2015); State v. Moore, 847 N.E.2d 452, 456 (Ohio Ct. App. 2006) (interpreting Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2743.48 (Lexis Nexis 2017)); Wilhoit v. State, 226 P;3d 682, 686 (Okla. 2009) (interpreting Okla. Stat, tit. 51, § 154(B) (2011)); State v. Oakley, 227 S.W.3d 58, 62 (Tex. 2007) (interpreting Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 103.001-154 (West 2011)); Larson v. State, 375 P;3d 1096, 1103 (Wash. Ct. App.) (interpreting Wash. Rev. Code Ann. §§ 4 .100.010-.090 (West 2017)), review denied, 385 P;3d 117 (Wash. 2016).

         Federal courts and courts from other jurisdictions have held their wrongful incarceration statutes should be strictly construed in favor of the State and against any waiver of sovereign immunity. See, e.g., Sykes v. United States, 105 Fed. CI. 231, 233 (Fed. CI. 2012) (observing the federal unjust conviction and imprisonment statutes, 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1495, 2513, have "always been strictly construed" (quoting Vincin v. United States, 468 F;2d 930, 933 (Ct. CI. 1972))); Fessenden v. State, 52 So.3d 1, 7 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2010) (interpreting Fla. Stat. §§ 961.01-.07 (2017)); Webb v. State, 795 N.Y.S.2d 636, 637 (N.Y.App.Div. 2005) (interpreting N.Y. Ct. CI. Act § 8-b (McKinney 2017)), appeal denied, 845 N.E.2d 468 (N.Y. 2006). Hawaii's statute states explicitly that it "shall be broadly construed in favor of the State and against any waiver of sovereign immunity." Haw. Rev. Stat. § 661B-6 (Supp. 2016). Taking a more nuanced approach, the California Court of Appeals stated the sections of its wrongful incarceration statute should be "construed, not strictly, but according to the fair import of their terms." Ebberts v. State Bd. of Control, 148 Cal.Rptr. 543, 546 (Cal.Ct.App. 1978) (interpreting Cal. Penal Code §§ 4900-4906 (West 2017)).

         In interpreting the Act, we strive to discern the balance the Legislature intended to strike between the liberal construction afforded remedial legislation "in favor of the persons intended to be benefited thereby, " Berg v. Christie, 225 N.J. 245, 259 (2016) (quoting Klumb v. Bd. of Educ. of Manalapan-Enqlishtown Reg'l High Sch. Dist., 199 N.J. 14, 34 (2009)), and the more limited construction appropriate to the State's voluntary assumption of liability, cf. Davenport v. Borough of Closter, 294 N.J.Super. 635, 637 (App. Div. 1996) ("Under the [Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3], immunity is the norm, unless liability is provided for by the Act."); see also Deborah F. Buckman, Annotation, Construction and Application of State Statutes Providing Compensation for Wrongful Conviction and Incarceration, 53 A.L.R.6th 305, 325-26 (2010) (noting statutes attempt to balance the obligation to do justice with the responsibility to assure that public coffers are not overburdened by baseless claims).


         We first consider the State's argument that plaintiff is not eligible to recover under the Act. The State moved to dismiss plaintiff's complaint on the ground that he was ineligible to pursue his claim pursuant to N.J.S.A. 52:4C-6(a), which states,

A person serving a term of imprisonment for a crime other than a crime of which the person was mistakenly convicted shall not be eligible to file a claim for damages pursuant to the provisions of this act.

         The State concedes the language of this provision is susceptible to more than one interpretation and argues this provision must be read in light of the Legislature's stated ...

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