Case Summary: The Rules of Procedure Apply to Everyone, Including Pro Se Litigants
In the Matter of the Irrevocable Trust of John L. Marchisotto, Deceased, Docket No. A-3453-19 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. April 21, 2022)
Although courts are often patient with pro se litigants, this appeal serves as a reminder that the rules of civil procedure apply to all litigants and failing to comply with them can result in drastic consequences, including sanctions and the dismissal of a matter with prejudice.
In March 2018, John F. Marchisotto (“John”), a pro se plaintiff, filed an action against his sister, Debra Canova (“Debra”), the executor of the estate of their father, John L. Marchisotto (“Decedent”), and the trustee of the Decedent’s irrevocable trust. Based upon the limited record filed by John on appeal, he originally asked the trial court solely to compel Debra to prepare an accounting. He later changed his position, however, and, without providing any competent evidence, claimed that Debra had not only misused her power of attorney for the Decedent, but had also unduly influenced the Decedent to change his will when he allegedly became ill and relied on her for his care.
The trial court ordered Debra to prepare and file a formal accounting, which consisted of 875 pages, including supporting documentation, in response to John’s complaint. Rather than file exceptions to the formal accounting, John demanded a supplemental account based upon his alleged concern that Debra may have diverted funds during an earlier time period. The trial court attempted to address John’s apprehension by requiring Debra to provide him with an additional informal accounting. Nevertheless, John contended, without evidence, that his sister had stolen substantial sums of money and that the source documentation for the accountings, including bank and brokerage house statements, were fraudulent.
Not long after filing his complaint, John began conducting his own investigations, including, but not limited to, contacting institutions with his allegations of fraud and reporting the estate’s attorney and others to different law enforcement and disciplinary authorities. He also continually filed “innumerable rambling, nearly incomprehensible motions and other submissions with the court, seemingly mindless of the cost to the trust or the court rules governing his conduct.” Id. at *10. This caused the trial judge to propose the appointment of a discovery master. The trial judge ordered John to provide the court with certain financial information to evaluate his ability to share the cost of a master, but John failed to comply.
After John asserted his fraud claims, the estate propounded interrogatories to discover the factual basis of the allegations. Because John failed to answer the interrogatories, the trial court dismissed his complaint without prejudice in March 2019. John moved to reinstate his pleadings in April 2019, but the trial judge denied his motion and indicated she would reconsider her ruling only if John provided “comprehensible responses to specific interrogatories.” Id. at *11.
In December 2019, Debra moved to dismiss John’s complaint with prejudice. The court denied the motion, however, and gave John another opportunity to submit responsive answers, providing him with guidance as to what the court rules required.
When John served Debra with his amended answers, she renewed her motion to dismiss his complaint with prejudice. The trial court granted the motion, and the Appellate Division affirmed, observing that John had been ordered to provide more fully responsive answers to specific interrogatories — not just once but on multiple occasions. The Appellate Division further noted that John’s “flagrant and continuous failure to comply with the rules, despite the repeated efforts of [the trial court] to explain to him what he needed to do to move the case forward, rested with him and no one else.” Id. at *20. Moreover, the increased costs caused by John’s “wasteful” motions, which unfairly burdened the beneficiaries, constituted an additional factor relevant to the trial court’s decision to dismiss the matter with prejudice, particularly where John had failed to present any evidence to support his fraud claims. Id. at *20-21. Finally, John’s decision to “truncate the [appellate] record” left the Appellate Division without any basis on which to overrule the trial judge’s award of sanctions, including $81,848.70 in fees and $3,976.33 in costs. Id. at *2, 22-23.