New Jersey requires that most civil litigation matters proceed to a mandatory, non-binding arbitration prior to being listed for trial. In the cases that qualify for the program, the matters are listed for arbitration at the close of discovery. Normally, the parties would have been directed to appear in the various court houses to attend these proceedings. Dozens if not hundreds of people would be asked to appear and cramped into designated areas where the proceedings take place. As a result of stay-at-home orders, and social distancing guidelines, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued orders adjourning or suspending these proceedings through April 26, 2020. Currently the Court has extended most discovery end dates through May 10, 2020 but it has also recognized that attorneys, their clients and self-represented litigants have access to and are employing virtual technology to conduct their lawsuits. As a consequence, the Court is moving toward resuming normal operations and has directed that arbitration proceedings resume as of April 27, 2020.
Now that restrictions are beginning to lift, the Supreme Court has directed that these arbitration proceedings take place by virtual or telephonic means. The Court has set up guidelines for how these matters are being or will be conducted. Here’s how the Court has stated the proceedings are to occur:
- Prior to the scheduling of arbitrations, each vicinage's Arbitration Administrator will determine what arbitrators are willing to participate and conduct hearings remotely
- Once the court has scheduled an arbitration, the Arbitration Administrator will provide contact information to the arbitrators and case participants and will provide the arbitrators with the appropriate reporting form
- Ten days prior to the remote hearing, the parties are to exchange their arbitration statements and are encouraged to do so by email
- On or before the scheduled hearing date, the parties are to provide the statements to the arbitrator(s) and once again are encouraged to do so by email.
- On the appointed date and time, the arbitrator(s) will initiate and conduct the hearing; court arbitration administrative staff are to be available to provide technical assistance and once the hearing is concluded, the initiating arbitrator must notify the court administration that their assistance is no longer needed
- These proceedings are to be conducted consistent with social distancing guidelines to the greatest extent possible and the arbitrator(s) have the discretion on how to implement such measures (video vs. telephone conferencing) with the consent of the parties.
- After completion of the hearing and in the telephonic/video presence of the parties, the arbitrator(s) will render the award, including the basis for the decision. The award will be memorialized on the Report and Award form.
- Instead of handwritten signatures, the Report and Award form may be electronically signed by the arbitrator(s) and participants, or by an arbitrator on behalf of any participant with that participant's consent (which consent will be memorialized on the Report and Award form).
- Immediately following the arbitration, the arbitrator will electronically transmit the completed Report and Award form to the Arbitration Administrator, who will upload it into eCourts, at which time it will be considered "filed" so as to eliminate any question as to when the 30-day period for rejecting the award and requesting trial de novo begins to run (i.e., from the upload date in eCourts).
Once uploaded into eCourts, any party will be able to obtain a copy of the Report and Award form.
For information on all the orders and directives issued by the New Jersey Supreme Court in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can find them posted on the Court’s website at: https://www.njcourts.gov/public/covid19.html
If you have questions about the New Jersey Court directives, you can reach out to any of the general liability attorneys in our Mt. Laurel or Woodbridge office or contact Matthew K. Mitchell, Esq., chair of the firm's general liability practice in New Jersey, at firstname.lastname@example.org.