Effective September 2000, the New Jersey Courts instituted “Best Practices,” a program designed to improve the efficiency and expedition of the civil litigation process in the state. One of the many areas affected by Best Practices was discovery–the process of obtaining evidence from other parties in the lawsuit. Prior to Best Practices, “parties to litigation were expected to complete discovery within 150 days of service of the complaint.” Bender v. Adelson, 187 N.J. 411, 426 (2006) (citations omitted). “However, that deadline was rarely observed, and attorneys were routinely granted extensions with no enforced discovery end date.” Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted). “As a result, protracted discovery frequently necessitated the postponement of scheduled trial dates, and aggrieved parties were forced to bring motions to compel discovery to resolve what largely were relatively straightforward discovery issues.” Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted). Best Practices sought to curb these problems by lengthening the initial discovery period and “render[ing] it substantially more difficult to obtain extensions and amendments once discovery has ended and a trial or arbitration date is set.” Id.
A recently decided Appellate Division case shows how difficult it is to reopen discovery once an arbitration occurs. In Easterling v. N.J. Transit, Docket No. A-5403-13T3 (N.J. App. Div. Jan. 12, 2016), the plaintiff filed a personal injury action against N.J. Transit, alleging that she was injured when a bus driver closed the doors of the bus on her arms and right foot as she was boarding. After two extensions, discovery ended on February 22, 2014. The parties then engaged in mandatory court-ordered arbitration. The defendant then rejected the arbitration award and filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff had failed to prove causation–that is, that her complained-of injuries were caused by the negligence of the defendant. The plaintiff responded to this motion by asking the trial court to re-open discovery to permit her to undergo a “bone scan” and obtain new opinions from her treating doctors linking her injuries to the accident.
The trial court granted the defendant’s motion and dismissed the plaintiff’s case, finding that there were no “exceptional circumstances” that would warrant re-opening discovery. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the trial court’s determination that there no were no exceptional circumstances was not an abuse of discretion. The Appellate Division explained:
The cross-motion to extend discovery in this case was made not only after the conclusion of the discovery period and after arbitration was scheduled, but after arbitration was completed. By choosing to go to arbitration rather than making a motion within the appropriate time frame, plaintiff’s counsel was acknowledging the case was ready to proceed. Plaintiff’s counsel did not obtain a report from a medical expert on causation or permanency, did not timely file for another extension of discovery, and proceeded to arbitration without necessary proofs. Plaintiff acknowledges she required additional medical reports to successfully defend against the summary judgment motion. The argument [that] a discovery extension was necessary to obtain evidence of medical causation and permanency required to defeat a summary judgment motion demonstrates a lack of diligence by counsel, not an exceptional circumstance.
(Slip Op. at 8.)
As this case demonstrates, Best Practices requires that parties (and their attorneys) proceed diligently through all pretrial procedures. The plaintiff’s failure to obtain necessary evidence from her doctors linking her alleged injuries to the accident prior to the discovery end date (and proceeding with an arbitration) proved fatal to her claims. Had she obtained this evidence prior to the discovery end date, she may have successfully opposed the motion for summary judgment and proceeded to trial. Instead, her case was summarily dismissed by the trial judge.
The lesson here is to always have your case “trial ready” by the time discovery ends and the case is given an arbitration or trial date. Otherwise, be prepared to explain to the court why your failure to do so constitutes “exceptional circumstances” warranting a re-opening of discovery.