When is a Lawsuit Frivolous Enough to Get A Court to Award Attorney Fees in New Jersey?

By Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann & Wright, a Freehold, NJ Defense Against Frivolous Lawsuit Attorney

Every time a person gets sued, they think to themselves: I didn’t do anything wrong!  Why am I getting sued?  Nobody likes having to go to court.  Most times, people think the litigation they are being dragged through is frivolous, and unjust.  Even if they successfully defend themselves, they seek attorney fees for their costs to defend.  Recovering legal fees and Court costs can be tough. Unless allowed by statute or court rule, the winner in a case does not automatically get his or her legal fees for winning.  Today, we will be talking about a case that discusses an area where you can get legal fees- frivolous litigation.

Not every lawsuit is frivolous, even if you successfully defend yourself in that lawsuit.  Our frivolous lawsuit law, N.J.S.A.: 2A:15-59.1 (a) (1) provides that you can get attorney fees if a judge makes a finding that your pleading was made to harass, delay, or injure the other party, or had no reasonable basis in law or equity to bring the suit. Another finding for frivolous litigation is that you presented no good faith argument as to why your allegations or defense would extend, modify, or reverse existing law.  In other words, if the lawsuit is brought maliciously or with no basis in the law, it is frivolous.  Surely, you may think the lawsuit that was brought against you was brought to harass you, or you believe there is no rational argument or basis for the suit.  But it is sometimes tough to convince a judge that adversaries’ case was frivolous, because it isn’t always the case.  Let’s consider a recent unpublished Appellate Division decision, Garden State Highway Products, Inc. v. Vineland Cooperative Produce Auction Association, Inc..

Here the plaintiff was looking to expand its business, and needed to use a five foot buffer area located on the defendant’s property so the plaintiff’s trucks could maneuver back and forth onto plaintiff’s loading dock.  The agreement with the defendant restricted the use of the encroachment preventing the plaintiff from using defendant’s private road to access the highway.  Yet the plaintiff’s trucks broke this agreement, accessing defendant’s road, and the defendant threatened to place a fence at the opening to the road to prevent the trucks from coming in.  So the plaintiff filed a complaint in court asserting the defendant was blocking the permitted use of the buffer, and that the access to defendant’s private drive resulted in adverse possession.

You can sense almost immediately…this is a frivolous claim.  If you give access to your neighbor to use a small buffer for trucks to go onto a landing platform, and all of a sudden, your neighbor’s trucks are driving beyond the buffer and onto your private road and you tell him to stop, threaten to build a fence, and then in response the neighbor goes to court to stop the fence to get this access,  isn’t this the kind of litigation that forces someone defend themselves in court because there is no claim to this road to begin with.  Well the court agreed.  The claim of adverse possession is found in the common law, requiring somebody to prove that one trespassed on a piece of land, did so continuously, made it obvious, didn’t let others onto the land, and was never told to get off the land.  It also requires 30 years of continuous use of the land.  The plaintiff was told multiple times to get off the road, and the use of the road did not continue for 30 years.  So this claim was defective from the start.

Thus, the court found the litigation to be frivolous and awarded the defendant attorney’s fees for defending itself in this suit, and the Appellate Division affirmed.  While the frivolous claims argument is not always applicable, we can see why it is applicable here.  There was no right to use the drive, yet plaintiff sued claiming it should be able to use the drive.  This is certainly frivolous.

To discuss your NJ Litigation matter, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at fniemann@hnlawfirm.com.  Please ask us about our video conferencing consultations if you are unable to come to our office.

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