Although often our Litigation Department handles cases involving exclusively money damages, there are an ever increasing amount of litigation matters, which are filed in Superior Court, that do not involve statements where a person is suing another for money damages. Rather what is sought is an equitable remedy or, in other words, the achievement of a fair and just outcome whereby a Court Order is sought to compel that someone do something or that something occur or not occur. These often complex cases can involve the enforcement of rights. Often these involve securing injunctive relief via an Order to Show Cause, which seeks immediate court intervention. Such “general equity” action includes matters involving property rights, such as the enforcement of easements, adverse possession, partition actions, quiet title actions, the cancellation of mortgages and matters where contract rescission is sought.
General equity cases are handled in the Chancery Division of the Superior Court. Generally, these types of cases are case managed by the Court very closely in a more streamlined and efficient approach. The commencement of the litigation is through the filing of a complaint just as in the Law Division. However, there are no juries in this section of the Court. The case is tried solely by a judge and by “case managing” each matter closely, the Court becomes more familiar with the facts and is in a better position, earlier in the case, to narrow the issues and focus the parties on their particular strengths and weaknesses. This can often lead to a settlement earlier having the effect of causing expenses and costs to be lower. Typically, from the filing of a Complaint to the possible final hearing, which may or may not be necessary, the entire process will generally be completed in a year or less, much quicker than in the Law Division. The basics of litigating in General Equity are the same as the Law Division. Discovery, including interrogatories, document production and depositions are used.
Very common is the situation where a party has multiple causes of action and may be seeking equitable relief in one count and money damages in another. The test for where an action is properly filed “Law” or “Equity” is which cause of action constitutes the principal or primary relief sought. There are exceptions to this rule. Matters involving probate, Will contests and the like, and Family Part actions, can often be about money but are considered cases that are to be heard in the Chancery Division.
Darrell M. Felsenstein is a Partner at WJ&L and practices in our Litigation Department where he also serves as Administrative Chair.