New Jersey Appeals Court Finds That The Entire Controversy Doctrine Applies To Pro Se Litigants

The entire controversy doctrine requires litigants in a lawsuit to assert all claims that each party might have against the party in a single lawsuit. R. 4:30A The doctrine is intended to prevent fractionalized litigation. There are three reasons for the doctrine:  (1) the need for complete and final disposition through the avoidance of piecemeal decisions; (2) fairness to parties; and (3) efficiency and the avoidance of waste and the reduction of delay. DiTrolio v. Antiles, 142 N.J. 253, 267 (1995) (citing Cogdell v. Hospital Center, 116 N.J. 7, 15 (1989).

In a recent case, Estate of Smiley v. McElnea, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, applied the entire controversy doctrine to pro se litigants, or parties without an attorney, and held that a pro se litigant is entitled to no greater rights than are litigants who are represented by an attorney.

In the Estate of Smiley case, plaintiff George Gibson became the personal representative of his aunt Elyree Smiley’s estate in 2003. During a contest to the will in 2005, a judge briefly appointed attorney Brenda McElnea to take over the estate administration. When the will was upheld, Gibson was restored to his post in June 2005.

Later, Gibson filed a small claims action and a probate action against McElnea, claiming she failed to maintain insurance on Smiley’s house, which suffered water damage while vacant, and challenging her spending of estate funds for taxes, storage fees and a high water bill. The two lawsuits were consolidated. Decided in June 2006. Gibson won a judgment against McElnea for the water damage sustained at the house, but lost on his other claims.

Gibson was pro se through June 2006. Thereafter, Gibson hired an attorney and, in March 2008, filed another lawsuit against McElnea. That suit alleged a breach of fiduciary duty in failing to properly catalog the asset’s estate, to insure the real estate and to hire licensed movers for personal property.

McElnea filed a motion for summary judgment under the entire controversy doctrine. Applying the doctrine, the trial court granted summary judgment to McElnea. Gibson appealed, pleading that since he was pro se when he brought the first two suits, he was unaware of the entire controversy doctrine. “The court in the original action was required to be sure that plaintiff was aware of his rights in pursuit of the action against the defendant,” Gibson said in his appellate brief. “At no time was this done. As a result, plaintiff was limited as to what could be raised in that proceeding.”

On appeal, the appellate court acknowledged that pro se litigants are permitted a relaxation of the rules to avoid denial of fundamental due process. “Plaintiff, however, was not deprived of such due process in this case,” they said.

Procedural rules [like the entire controversy doctrine] are not abrogated or abridged by plaintiff’s pro se status.” Rosenblum v. Boro. of Closter, 285 N.J. Super. 230, 241 (App. Div. 1995), certif. denied, 146 N.J. 70 (1996). Significantly, if litigants choose to represent themselves, “they must understand that they are required to follow accepted rules of procedure promulgated by the Supreme Court to guarantee an orderly process.” Id. at 241-42 (quoting Tuckey v. Harleysville Ins. Co., 236 N.J. Super. 221, 224 (App. Div. 1989).

In affirming the dismissal of Gibson’s lawsuit, the appellate court said that the plaintiff — who sued his lawyer three times, two of them pro se — was “using successive litigation as a club” and “should not be able to sue, then investigate more, then sue, then investigate even further, ad infinitum.”