New Jersey appeals court ruled pro se litigants who bungle their own cases can seek redress under the same rules as litigants whose cases are bungled by negligent lawyers. The Ridge at Back Brook v. Klenert, Docket No. A-2345-12T1 (App. Div., August 12, 2014)

Plaintiff, The Ridge at Back Brook, owns an 18-hole golf course in NJ. Plaintiff filed a complaint against defendant W. Thomas Klenert, one of its members, for dues and other charges.

Klenert, appearing on his own behalf, filed an answer denying the allegations of the complaint. Thereafter, plaintiff served requests for admissions, seeking defendant’s admission of every facts asserted by plaintiff. Defendant did not respond. Relying on the admissions generated by defendant’s failure to respond to the requests for admissions, plaintiff moved for summary judgment. In a brief response, Klenert, who had filed for bankruptcy while continuing to represent himself in the lawsuit, argued that the membership agreement was a contract of adhesion and its terms unconscionable.

The court granted the summary judgment motion, and judgment was entered in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $253,456.01, plus attorneys fees.

After plaintiff sought to collect on the judgment, counsel appeared for defendant and moved to vacate the summary judgment. In his supporting certification, defendant claimed that, after signing plaintiff’s membership agreement, defendant learned that the golf course project was millions of dollars over budget, and it would be the members who would bear the shortfall through extra costs and expenses not disclosed at the time the membership agreement was signed.

In addressing his failure to properly respond to plaintiff’s request for admissions and summary judgment motion, defendant asserted that when served with the complaint he “was in a very stressful financial condition, and could not afford to retain counsel.” Defendant also claimed that he misunderstood his obligation to timely respond to plaintiff’s request for admissions.

The court denied defendant’s application. The judge found that defendant, despite representing himself, had sufficient opportunity to dispute the allegations asserted by plaintiff.

Defendant filed a notice of appeal. The appeals court characterized defendant’s argument as follows: “The heart of defendant’s appeal lies in the argument that an impecunious pro se litigant, without the wherewithal to understand the requirements of the rules governing civil practice, may be relieved of the consequences of that failure.”

Surprisingly, the appellate court answered in the affirmative, equating the negligence of a pro se litigant with that of an attorney whose negligent acts are not attributable to his client:

[A] litigant may, in appropriate circumstances, be relieved of the consequences of his attorney’s negligence in the conduct of a case… [Those circumstances turn on] the timeliness of the relief sought, the reasons for the movant’s earlier failure to comport with the rules, the movant’s degree of fault or blamelessness as opposed to his attorney’s fault or blame, and the prejudice that would accrue to the other party if relief were granted. Appropriate applications of these factors have excused litigants from the negligence of their attorneys … [A] pro se litigant is entitled to nothing less than that to which a litigant is entitled when represented by a negligent attorney… Defendant was entitled to have his … motion examined in light of the factors outlined … above.

The appeals court remanded the case to the trial judge to reconsider defendant’s application to set aside the summary judgment entered against him.

The case is annexed here – The Ridge at Back Brook v. Klenert

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