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DiMeo v. DiMeo

A-2132-02T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2004) (Unpublished)

CONTRACTS; FRAUD—When information is readily available to the public, one party cannot have a contract or settlement set aside just because the other party did not reveal that information, material as it may be, known to the other party.

A dispute between parents and their son over their farming business led to a settlement that gave the farm to the son. After some time, the parents brought suit, alleging that prior to the settlement, the local Board of Agriculture, of which their son was an executive member, approved the hiring of a lobbyist to help make funds available to local farmers under the Garden State Preservation Act (Act). The son participated in the decision to hire a lobbyist to persuade the Legislature to include their local area in the preservation trust program. About three months after the family’s litigation was settled, the Act was amended to include farmlands within the local area, allowing the son to apply for funds under the Act.

The parents moved to vacate the settlement agreement, alleging newly discovered evidence about their son’s failure to disclose the efforts to make preservation funding available to their area. After a plenary hearing, the lower court found the parents had not been wrongly denied information constituting material facts. Specifically, the lower court noted the complexity of the settlement, much of which did not involve monetary considerations, and which did not include appraisals of the property. Therefore, information about possible amending the Act was not material to the settlement.

The Appellate Division affirmed, based on the lower court’s conclusion that the complexity of the settlement was beyond a monetary dispute, and was about family relationships, business relationships, and the affinity farmers have for their land. In circumstances like these, the Court defers to the lower court’s evaluation of credibility. Here, it accepted the lower court’s finding that the information the parents allegedly lacked would not have made any difference in the context of the settlement.

Finally, most of the information the parents claimed that they were unfairly denied was available to anyone, especially to members of the farming community. Various meeting minutes of the local Board of Agriculture referenced ongoing efforts to “set the guidelines to set dollar value for Ag[ricultrual] preservation lands,” and “[a] new formula created for the [local] Farmland Preservation valuation.” In addition, the local farming magazine, published by the New Jersey Farm Bureau, contained an article on ‘legislation adopted last year’ requiring establishment of ‘a formula to fund easement purchase[s] in the [local area].’”

Clearly, information about the efforts of the local farming community to make the local land acreage eligible for preservation funding were available as a matter of public record well before the settlement had been reached. For those reasons, the Court found no basis for any claims of newly discovered material evidence or of fraud in the inducement.

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