In a civil lawsuit in New Jersey, the parties are provided a certain amount of time to complete discovery, including the exchange of documents, deposing witnesses, and conducting medical examinations. The type of case generally dictates the timeframe in which discovery must be completed. For example, ordinary negligence actions are allotted 300 days, while discrimination, product’s liability, and professional liability suits are afforded 450 days.
Regardless of the type of case, the parties can request an extension of discovery if additional time is needed. The Court Rules provide the means of extending discovery and allow for a one-time 60-day extension by consent; otherwise, the Court Rules require a Motion.
There are two standards by which the Court views a Motion to Extend. If a Motion is filed and heard before the discovery period has expired, the Court will utilize the “good cause” standard. “Good cause” escapes a precise definition, but is viewed as a flexible concept and the measure for what constitutes good cause is not particularly high. Consequently, Motions to Extend under the good cause standard are often liberally granted.
If, however, an Arbitration or Trial date has been set, and a Motion to Extend is made, then the standard switches to “exceptional circumstances,” which carries with it a much higher burden of persuasion. Situations that meet this threshold include the death of a family member, death or health problems of key witnesses, and/or death or health problems of counsel.
Given the competing standards, a gray area was created: What standard applies to a Motion that is filed and set to be heard within the discovery period when the case was already assigned an Arbitration or Trial date? The Appellate Division, in Hollywood Café Diner Inc. v. Jaffe, et. al., 473 N.J. Super. 210 (2022) recently answered the question. The standard is good cause.
In Hollywood Café Diner, Inc., the Plaintiffs filed a legal malpractice action against their attorney and the firm (collectively “the Defendants”) for negligent representation in an underlying dram shop matter. The Plaintiffs alleged that the Defendants breached their professional duties by failing to investigate the accident, and failing to disclose, consult, or discuss the settlement with the Plaintiffs.
During the litigation, while discovery was ongoing, the Trial Court assigned both an Arbitration and a Trial Date. Since discovery was incomplete, and additional time was needed, the Defendants moved to extend discovery. As the Motion was filed and set to be heard prior to the discovery end date, the Defendants relied upon the good cause standard. The Court, however, denied the Motion. Citing the existence of the Arbitration and Trial date, the Court applied the more stringent exceptional circumstances standard, which the Court felt was not met.
The Appellate Division was asked to weigh in on the gray area and they ultimately reversed. According to the Appellate Division, regardless of whether an Arbitration or Trial Date is set, so long as the Motion to Extend is filed and heard prior to the expiration of discovery, the good cause standard shall be used.
The Appellate Division decision finally clears up the gray area in which many parties find themselves. It also is helpful to litigants because it forestalls a common practice at the Trial Court level, which is to purposely set an early Arbitration and/or Trial date as a means of forcing the use of the exceptional circumstances standard to justify denials of discovery extensions. In light of the Hollywood Café Diner, Inc. decision, so long as the Motion to Extend is filed and heard before the discovery end date, the liberal good cause standard applies regardless of any pending Arbitration or Trial date.
 Rey O. Villanueva, Esq. is a Shareholder in GRSLBG&B’s Litigation Department. He defends a wide variety of clients in various civil actions brought forth in New Jersey and New York State and Federal Courts. Rey can be reached at RVillanueva@grsl.com.
 Alexis M. Carrelli, Esq. is an Associate in GRSLBG&B’s Litigation Department. She defends a wide variety of clients in various civil actions brought forth in New Jersey State and Federal Courts. Alexis can be reached at ACarrelli@grsl.com.