Schorr & Associates’ Employment Case of The Week ending December 2, 2016

Wright v. Cherry Hill Township, 2016 U.S. N.J. Super. Unpub.  LEXIS 2529 (App. Div., November 28, 2016)(Unpublished)

A revolving door of attorneys ultimately resulted in no opposition to summary judgment being filed for the plaintiff.  Yet the order of summary judgment was reversed even though it was unopposed.

Kevin M. Wright was a Cherry Hill police officer for 19 years.  He suffered serious injuries in a work-related automobile accident in which he suffered a brain injury and developed psychological problems. He was terminated after an internal affairs investigation uncovered that he had abandoned numerous police items.  The items were found after a warrantless search of his house.

He sued Cherry Hill under the NJ Law Against Discrimination and the NJ Civil Rights Act.  Mr. Wright was thereafter represented by four different attorneys, and when he discharged the fourth attorney he became a pro se.  He retained a fifth attorney for the purpose of “winding down” the litigation, but the fifth attorney, who did not enter an appearance, claimed that he was not retained for the litigation, but rather to assist Mr. Wright with other matters.

The opposing counsel filed for summary judgment and the attorney made it clear that he had no intention of filing opposition.  Apparently, Wright was unaware that the attorney was telling the Court that he would not answer.  Wright sent a letter to the Court asking for a postponement to find new counsel.  The judge denied the motion and issued an order granting summary judgment.  Wright’s sixth attorney filed this appeal.

The Appellate Division affirmed the judge’s denial of the postponement, finding that the attorney had notified Mr. Wright that he would not be opposing the motion, but then reversed the order of summary judgment.  The Court ruled that, even where summary judgment is unopposed, the litigants are entitled to an explanation of the court’s reasoning, and therefore the trial judge still has the obligation to provide a statement of reasons.  The case was remanded for the statement of reasons.

While this may seem like nothing more than an aggrieved employee done wrong, I think the Appellate Division’s decision is worth taking note of. Even in a case where no opposition to Summary Judgment was filed, the Appellate Division still required the trial court to make a reasoned explanation of why Summary Judgment was granted. It is a good reminder that it is the moving party’s burden to prove that there are no issues of material fact, and that while it may be easier to meet the burden without opposition, it is never automatic.

We do not suggest failing to respond to Summary Judgments motions.

Appellate Judges: Lihotz and Whipple (opinion per curiam).