The “New Jersey Alternative Procedure Dispute Resolution Act” Bars Appellate Division Review Of Umpire’s Ruling In Probate Matter

In the January 4, 2012 Marinaccio v. Grgec decision, the Appellate Division was presented with an appeal of a probate matter that had been decided by an umpire under the New Jersey Alternate Procedure for Dispute Resolution Act (“APDRA”). The Appellate Division held that, after the umpire’s decision not to vacate a probate settlement agreement is reviewed at the trial level, it is not subject to further appellate review.

The plaintiff, Frank Marinaccio, had been sued by his sisters concerning the distribution of testamentary trusts. During the course of the litigation, the parties agreed to mediate the dispute, and ultimately executed a settlement agreement. The agreement provided that the brother would give each sister $250,000 from the proceeds of sale of the parents’ home, and that the brother would use his best efforts to market and sell the house expeditiously.It also provided that further disputes would be resolved by binding arbitration in accordance with the APDRA, before the umpire who had mediated the case.

Based upon the brother’s failure to market and sell the house, the sisters moved before the umpire to have Mr. Marinaccio declared in violation of the agreement. They also sought fees and costs, purusant to R. 1:10-3. The brother, in turn, moved to vacate the settlement agreement. With respect to the motion to vacate, the umpire found that the brother failed to meet the requirements of R. 4:50-1b to justify such relief. He also awarded the sisters legal fees.

Relying on N.J.S.A. 2A:23A-13(c)(5), Mr. Marinaccio sought review by the Chancery Division. The chancery court confirmed the umpire’s decision not to vacate the settlement, as well as the umpire’s fee award.

On further appeal, the Appellate Division ruled that the chancery court’s decision on the motion to vacate was not further appealable under the APDRA: in their settlement agreement, the siblings had agreed to be bound by the APDRA, which provides that, once a court enters an order “confirming, modifying, or correcting an award,” there is no further judicial review. It went on to note that, although the parties are permitted to expand the scope of this limited judicial review by agreement, the Marinaccio parties did not. The Appellate Division confirmed that there may be “rare circumstances” grounded in public policy considerations that would justify further appellate review, such as child support or custody issues, rulings in which a judge was biased or exceeded his or her authority, and attorney fees (which are within the exclusive supervision of the courts). It found, however, that issue of Marinaccio’s motion to vacate did not involve such “rare circumstances.”

Although the Appellate Division recognized that a counsel fee award is an exception to the APDRA’s bar against appellate review, it affirmed that fee award.

A copy of the January 4, 2012 opinion can be found here – Marinaccio v. Grgec