“This case is about the mattress and a pen”

by: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

Maybe it is because I was a journalism major in college, but I am a sucker for a good lede. The district court’s decision in West v. Emig has a great one. It begins:

Christopher H. West is an inmate who has frequently ingested inedible objects. During his incarceration, he has eaten the foam from inside his mattress, and he has also swallowed writing instruments, including pens. This case is about the mattress and a pen.

I was hooked, but then it got even more interesting.

Plaintiff claimed that, at two different prisons, employees removed the mattress from his cell “after he ingested foam from inside [the] mattresses.” Instead of following the grievance policy, which is typically required before an inmate can sue, West sued two former prison employees in federal court in Delaware, seeking $5 million in damages from each. He argued that he could not pursue his administrative remedies because, you guessed it, “the prisons denied him a pen needed to complete the prison grievance form – albeit for his own safety.” In other words, they removed his mattress because he ate the mattress foam, but he could not file a grievance about that because they previously removed his pen because he had a habit of eating his pens.

When plaintiff sued, defendants moved for summary judgment. They raised four defenses, including failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The district court only addressed that defense, and granted defendants’ motion based on it. Plaintiff appealed, and the Third Circuit reversed.

Continue reading ““This case is about the mattress and a pen””

Fee Dispute Between Counsel Inspires Court To Bemoan The Death Of The Practice Of Law As A Profession

by: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

In the final scene of the movie Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino’s character defends Chris O’Donnell’s character, who is about to be expelled from the (fictional) prestigious Baird School. Among many other things, Pacino’s character exclaims: “I don’t know who went to this place. William Howard Taft. William Jennings Bryant. William Tell, whoever. Their spirit is dead, if they ever had one.” Similarly, although slightly less dramatically, a fee dispute between counsel in Meister v. Verizon New Jersey Inc. led the trial court to eulogize the law as a profession:

This unfortunate fee dispute, coming as it does in the midst of seemingly final negotiations of a settlement, should resolve, with certainty, any lingering doubt that the practice of law, that storied profession of Marshall and Jefferson and Lincoln, is really now just another capitalist enterprise.

The court walked these comments back, slightly, by acknowledging that “[t]he practice of law is not a hobby” and “[h]ard working and industrious counsel who take risks to advance a client’s case and to maximize a client’s recovery should be rewarded.” But it then immediately returned to its original thesis:

However, while lawyers may indeed make a client’s life better through their advocacy and vigilant protection of that client’s interests, they are uniquely able to make it seem as though they are not doing so when quarreling, as they are here, over who gets to spell out how much they should be paid from their paralyzed client’s recovery and why one is more entitled to do so than another.

This is probably not how the lawyers in the case hoped the court would start its opinion.

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You think you had a bad day at work, this guy tried to drive across the Elizabeth River in an excavator.

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

If ever a lawyer should have been awarded points for creativity, Diaco Construction, Inc. v. Ohio Security Ins. Co. is the case where it should have happened. It is an insurance coverage dispute, but don’t stop reading just because of that. The underlying facts are interesting and the insured’s lawyer’s arguments, though ultimately unsuccessful, were creative.

The facts in Diaco were summarized succinctly by the Appellate Division:

Plaintiff . . . lost an excavator in the Elizabeth River in the course of constructing concrete headwalls and outlets for stormwater runoff pursuant to its contract with the City of Elizabeth. [Plaintiff’s] employee was operating the excavator on the riverbank when he sensed it slipping into the river. Trying to avert disaster, the operator turned the machine and tried to drive it across the river. The effort was not a success as the excavator got stuck three-quarters of the way across. Although nothing leaked into the river from the wreck, the excavator was a total loss and it cost [Plaintiff] over $300,000 to remove it a week later following oral demand by the City and the Department of Environmental Protection.

Plaintiff’s insurance company paid $95,000 for loss of the excavator and $28,750 for debris removal. Plaintiff then made a claim with its carrier for the balance. The carrier denied the claim and plaintiff sued. The normal, mind-numbing review of insurance policy language followed.

Continue reading “You think you had a bad day at work, this guy tried to drive across the Elizabeth River in an excavator.”

“But you yada yada’d over the best part!”

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

As any Seinfeld fan knows, you cannot “yada yada” over the best part of a story. But in a recent decision, a New Jersey court did just that.

In Barry v. Melmed Construction Company, Inc., the court spent eleven pages discussing a relatively routine case where defendant waived the right to enforce the arbitration provision in its contract with plaintiffs – defendant waited too long to raise the issue, actively participated in litigation in state court, etc. – but then dropped this bomb at the very end of the decision:

We acknowledge the anomaly of plaintiffs’ assertion that they are not bound by the arbitration clause their counsel drafted and they insisted be included in the contract between the parties, particularly in light of counsel’s apparent admission that he drafted the clause to allow plaintiffs to argue it could not be enforced against them. While not endorsing such conduct, we do not address it in light of defendants’ waiver of an arbitration remedy.

So let me get this straight, plaintiffs demanded that their contract with defendant include an arbitration provision, and then had their counsel draft the provision so that they could later argue that the provision could not be enforced against them?!? And the court waited until the end of the case, in a footnote no less, to bring this up?!? This was the most interesting part of the case! Reducing it to a footnote on the last page, and then not even discussing it substantively, is the judicial equivalent of “yada yada-ing” the best part of the story.

Husband’s Foreclosure Defense? I Had No Idea My Wife Entered Into Those Mortgages (Or Had Those Credit Cards, Or Drained Our Savings . . . )

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Unfortunately, New Jersey still has the highest foreclosure rate in the country. Most weeks, the Appellate Division issues several decisions related to residential foreclosure, and most follow a predictable pattern – a lender forecloses and obtains final judgement of foreclosure, the borrower appeals, claiming that the bank lacked standing to foreclose, and the Appellate Division affirms entry of final judgment of foreclosure. But every now and then a case comes along that breaks that mold. U.S. Bank National Association v. Gallagher is one of those cases. (Note: I am not related to the Gallaghers in this case or the Gallaghers in the Showtime series, Shameless, but the facts of this case might actually fit in that show.)

Gallagher starts off normal enough. Defendants were married in 1986. In 1996 they bought property and built their marital home. Two years later, they used the property as security for a loan. Over the next ten years, they refinanced the mortgage on the property four times. Eventually, however, they were unable to make the monthly payments and the bank foreclosed.

That is when it gets interesting.

Continue reading “Husband’s Foreclosure Defense? I Had No Idea My Wife Entered Into Those Mortgages (Or Had Those Credit Cards, Or Drained Our Savings . . . )”