New Jersey Supreme Court Holds Denial of Right to Jury Trial Not Within Panoply of Sanctions in a Trial Court’s Arsenal

Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously held that trial courts may not deprive civil litigants of their constitutionally protected right to a jury trial as a sanction for failure to comply with a procedural rule.

In Williams v. American Auto Logistics, the pro se plaintiff’s complaint did not include a jury demand, but the defendant’s answer did. The defendant later sought to waive its jury demand, but the plaintiff withheld his consent, which was required by court rules. Notwithstanding the lack of consent, the trial judge granted the request to waive the jury as a sanction against the plaintiff for his failure to provide the pre-trial disclosures required by Rule 4:25-7. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s waiving of the jury as a sanction for the plaintiff’s failure to comply with Rule 4:25-7.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the matter, with instructions to conduct a jury trial. The Court began with the view that a loss of a constitutional right should not be wielded as a penalty for a litigant’s failure to comply with procedural rules. The Court noted that there are a “panoply of sanctions in a trial court’s arsenal” with which to punish noncompliant litigants, such as to “hold a party in contempt, preclude a party from admitting evidence, enter an adverse inference against a party, impose payment of a penalty fee to the court or another party, or order a new trial.” What is not in the trial court’s arsenal, according to the Court, is removing a party’s constitutional right to a jury trial when such a right exists.

This decision highlights the New Jersey Supreme Court’s recent focus on private citizens’ right to a jury trial. In the 2014 decision Atalese v. U.S. Legal Services Group, the Court held that arbitration provisions in consumer contracts must clearly state that the right to trial by jury was waived. In addition, the Supreme Court’s emphasis on trial courts’ ability to sanction parties for failure to comply with procedural rules should be heeded by all parties.