Trial attorneys in New Jersey commonly file motions to extend discovery when additional time is needed to prosecute or defend their cases. Over the past few years, a recent trend has emerged where cases are being scheduled for trial and arbitration even though discovery is still ongoing. Once one such proceeding is scheduled, however, the standard by which Trial Courts evaluate a motion to extend changes from a lenient “good cause” standard to the more stringent “exceptional circumstances” standard.
An Appellate Division panel recently addressed the Trial Court’s practice of noticing and scheduling trial and arbitration dates before a discovery end date has passed. The consequences of this recent trend in practice has caused discovery related quarrels among attorneys, detriment, and loads of added stress to the handling attorneys.
Under New Jersey Court Rules, once a case is scheduled for arbitration or trial, attorneys/litigants must then meet a “rigorous exceptional circumstances” test if additional time is needed to conduct discovery. Conversely, in cases where no trial or arbitration date has been set, attorneys/litigants need only meet a more “lenient” and “flexible” “good cause” standard when requesting extensions of discovery.
In this recent published opinion, the litigants had received a trial notice (thereby triggering the exceptional circumstances standard) even though discovery in their case was not set to expire for another month. When the issue was brought up on appeal, the panel recognized that while not prohibited under the Court Rules, the use of such an administrative tool by the Trial Courts could lead to confusion or “mixed messages.”
Indeed, the panel reasoned:
It is readily apparent that a court could render meaningless the "good cause" standard applicable to motions to extend discovery that are timely filed before expiration of the DED by simply assigning an arbitration or trial date early in the litigation.
Following its review of best practices and noting that courts “strive to construe a court rule so as to avoid rendering any part… inoperative, superfluous or meaningless,” the Appellate Division then expressly held:
“We have no idea how widespread the practice of setting an arbitration or trial date before discovery ends is among trial courts, but our point here is not to criticize the practice of sending out arbitration and trial notices before the end of discovery, although doing so causes obvious tension among a series of rules designed to foster trial date certainty. The capable presiding judges and managers of the Civil Division in the various vicinages know best how to manage the court's calendar….
…Our construction of the Rule is consonant with its plain language and gives meaning to all its terms, is consistent with the purposes of other rules designed to set realistic trial dates, and favors the general policy of adjudicating litigation on its merits.”
Trial attorneys in New Jersey on both sides of the “v” can now enjoy some breathing room in those cases where a trial or arbitration date was issued before discovery expired. Indeed, this additional time will allow for the development of a more complete record, which could go a long way with resolving disputes well before clients have to incur the costs of a trial.
The authors of this alert welcome any questions or requests for further information.
Attached is a link to the case, below: