Premature Sua Sponte dismissal of Complaint

In the Matter of the Estate of Stezzi, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No. A-2660-08T1, the Court reviewed a trial court’s sua sponte order dismissing plaintiff’s Complaint.

Plaintiff was omitted from his father’s Will of 2006. As a result, he filed a pro se Complaint to invalidate the Will of 2006 and for a declaration that the terms of a 1984 Will be enforced (which included him) or, in the alternative, that a declaration be made that his father died intestate. The Complaint alleged lack of capacity and undue influence.

The parties appeared for a Case Management Conference; the conference was arranged by the Court in lieu of trial after plaintiff advised that he was not prepared to proceed. After lengthy colloquy on the record, the trial judge summarily dismissed the complaint, sua sponte. The judge essentially found that plaintiff was not prepared to try the case and that the legal basis of his contentions had not been sufficiently articulated.

After noting that it appreciated the trial court’s frustration in dealing with a pro se litigant, the Court held that the record did not reflect that plaintiff was given appropriate notice prior to the conference that his Complaint could be dismissed on the date of the conference. Furthermore, the plaintiff was not found to be in specific violation of the terms of any prior court orders, nor had defense counsel asked for the dismissal. Thus, the Appellate Division held that the sua sponte order of dismissal was premature, vacated the dismissal order, and remanded the matter.

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