The city may be on the hook for a $165,000 arbitration award rendered to a couple involved in an automobile accident with a municipal street sweeper after the law firm representing the city repeatedly failed to file a trial de novo or new trial notice with the court, according to court documents.
“The City did not take advantage of the opportunity the trial court gave it to correct its past derelictions, and again failed to file the request for a trial de novo as directed,” wrote judges Jose Fuentes, Ellen Koblitz, and John C. Kennedy in an opinion issued on August 11th, 2016 denying the city’s appeal to set aside the arbitration award and allow for a trial.
The judges were referring to an opportunity that opened up after the couple — Ana Velarde and Pedro Velarde – failed to confirm the award and enter a judgment within 50 days as required by a court rule.
The city also failed to file a trial de novo notice within 30 days of the arbitration award filing. As a result the case was dismissed by the court. However, the Velardes filed a motion to reinstate their complaint and arbitration award. At the same time, the city filed a late notice for a trial de novo.
A judge rejected the city’s request for a trial for failing to file in a timely manner. The law firm Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley cited internal staffing problems and difficulties securing an authorization to settle the case from the new city council and mayor as reasons for the filing delay.
The judge remarked such matters “have no bearing on whether the request for trial de novo was filed timely with the court.” The judge agreed to reinstate the Velardes’ complaint on August 26th, 2014, but not their arbitration award which meant a trial.
The judge gave the city 14 days to file a trial de novo notice. The law firm failed to file the notice within the given time period. The city’s lawyers argued having not received the Aug. 26, 2014 order and requested a five-day extension which was granted.
The deadline was extended to October 17th, 2014. The law firm filed a trial de novo notice on October 15th, 2014, but failed to serve the Velardes.
On October 21st, 2014, the Velardes filed to confirm the arbitration award. Noting the city was given “every indulgence” a judge sided with the Velardes giving them the $165,000 arbitration award on November 7th, 2014.
On December 1st, 2014, the city filed a motion for reconsideration. It was 4 days late in its filing. A judge denied the reconsideration motion.
“There was more than one opportunity to fix it,” said city law director Domenick Stampone on Wednesday afternoon speaking about the constant late filings that could cost taxpayers thousands. He said the city did nothing wrong, but the law firm hired by the city failed to file the necessary paperwork in a timely fashion.
Kenyatta Stewart, a partner at the Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley law firm, which has offices in Paterson and Newark, said an employee no longer with the firm was responsible the debacle.
“Somebody made a mistake,” said Stewart, who spoke at the Paterson Municipal Court on Wednesday afternoon. “The more senior people didn’t know.”
Stewart noted the trial de nova was a very simple piece of paper to file with the court. He said the attorney responsible had six years of experience. The law firm parted ways with the employee shortly after the filing delays came to light, said Stewart.
Though the judges rejected the city’s appeal filed using a different law firm, Stampone said there’s still time left for the city to appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. He also said the city may go after the law firm.
“One way or the other the city will be protected because the city hasn’t done anything at this point to pay that level of an arbitration award. We disagree with the amount. We don’t think the case is worth that much.”
“I’m going to make sure it’s resolved,” said Stewart. He said the former employee responsible will have to pay a portion of the arbitration award. “It’s his job to make sure the city is whole,” said Stewart.
Stewart, who lives in the city, offered his personal guarantee to ensure taxpayers are not left holding the bag. A dollar value has to be assigned to the case and whatever is above that value will have to be covered by the ex-employee, said Stewart.
The law firm of Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley no longer works for the city after a change in administration left the firm without a contract.
The case stemmed from a March 23rd, 2011 incident in which a city street sweeper operated by Daniel Andre struck Ana Velarde’s vehicle.