“I’m strong to the fin-ich. Cause I eats me spin-ach. I’m Popeye the . . . debt collector man?”

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

PopeyeFor lawyers, debt collection can be a trap for the unwary. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA") governs debt collection by both attorneys and non-attorneys. It generally prohibits debt collectors from using deceptive, abusive, or unfair practices to collect debts. While that sounds straightforward, it is often difficult to figure out whether you are even a debt collector governed by the FDCPA, much less whether what you are trying to collect is a debt under the FDCPA and whether what you are doing to collect that debt is deceptive. And the consequences for running afoul of the FDCPA — statutory damages and attorney's fees — can be significant.

A recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Tepper v. Amos Financial, LLC, offered a good primer on one of these tricky issues — whether a party that buys debt and seeks to collect that debt for its own account qualifies as a debt collector under the FDCPA — but the more interesting aspect of the opinion is the court's frequent references to Popeye (the sailor man, not the fast food restaurant).

The opinion began: "Many would gladly pay Tuesday for a hamburger today." This, of course, is a reference to Wimpy's famous tag-line in Popeye. The court then described the basic purpose of the FDCPA and introduced the issue in the case as follows:

The Act does not apply . . . to all entities who collect debts; only those whose principal purpose is the collection of any debts, and those who regularly collect debts owed another are subject to its proscriptions. Those entities whose principal place business is to collect the defaulted debts they purchase seek to avoid the Act's reach. We believe such an entity is what it is – a debt collector. [Emphasis added.] If so, the Act applies.

Understandably, the court was not willing to go so far as have the defendant declare "I yam what I yam, and that's all that i yam," but you get the point. Popeye references continued throughout the opinion, so keep reading. 

Continue reading ““I’m strong to the fin-ich. Cause I eats me spin-ach. I’m Popeye the . . . debt collector man?””

Party That Drafted Arbitration Provision Moves To Have Provision Deemed Unenforceable. It Lost.

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

Arbitration (pd)Most cases involving commercial contracts and arbitration provisions follow a similar pattern. They generally involve consumers arguing that they cannot be bound by arbitration clauses found in the fine print of boilerplate contracts that they had no ability to negotiate. But Shah v. T & J Builders, LLC turns this scenario on its head. In Shah, plaintiffs, the consumers, drafted the contract that contained the arbitration clause but later argued that it was unenforceable. To make matters worse (or at least more unusual), plaintiffs took this position after participating in an arbitration proceeding with defendant for two years. Not surprisingly, plaintiffs efforts to have their own arbitration clause deemed unenforceable were unsuccessful.

In Shah, plaintiffs hired defendant to build an extension on their home. The contract, which was "heavily negotiated between the parties," albeit without counsel, was drafted by plaintiffs. It contained an arbitration clause that required the parties to arbitrate "any dispute [ ] relative to the performance of [the] contract that [they could not] satisfactorily resolve." After one such dispute arose, plaintiffs terminated the contract and defendant filed an arbitration demand. Plaintiffs answered the demand and filed a counterclaim, alleging breach of contract and violations of New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. Nowhere in their answer or counterclaim did plaintiffs address, much less challenge, the arbitration clause.

The parties, through counsel, then pursued their claims in arbitration for almost two years, exchanging discovery and expert reports, participating in a site inspection, and participating in several conferences with the arbitrator. Two weeks before the scheduled arbitration date, the parties submitted their pre-arbitration briefs. This is where the fun began. 

Continue reading “Party That Drafted Arbitration Provision Moves To Have Provision Deemed Unenforceable. It Lost.”

NJ Supreme Court Narrowly Defines “Aggrieved Consumer.” End Of The Road For One Type Of “No Injury” Class Action?

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

Contract(pd)
I have written a number of times about New Jersey's Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). (Here, here, and here for example.) This statute, which was largely ignored after it was enacted in 1981, became increasingly popular in recent years as part of so-called no injury class actions. (So-called mostly by defense counsel, not plaintiff's counsel.) Its popularity may now have come to an end, however, because the New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued its opinion in the highly-anticipated case, Spade v. Select Comfort Corp., which answered two questions certified to it by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, one of which appears to hamper, at the very least, the ability of plaintiffs to sue for alleged violations of the act.

By way of brief background, the TCCWNA was enacted to prevent deceptive practices in consumer contracts by prohibiting the use of illegal terms or warranties. It provides:

No seller . . . shall in the course of his business offer to any consumer or prospective consumer or enter into any written  consumer contract  .  .  .  or display any written . . . notice or sign . . . which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller . . . as established by State or Federal law at the time the offer is made . . . or the . . . notice or sign is given or displayed.

To state a claim under the TCCWNA, a plaintiff must prove four elements: (1) that it is a consumer; (2) that defendant is a seller; (3) that the seller offered a consumer contract containing a provision that violated a legal right of the consumer or a responsibility of the seller; and (4) that it was an "aggrieved consumer." Any party found to have violated the TCCWNA is liable for a civil penalty of not less than $100, actual damages, or both, and reasonable attorneys' fees and court costs.

The questions certified to the Supreme Court in Spade arose out of two cases that had been consolidated by the district court. Each involved plaintiffs who ordered furniture pursuant to contracts that violated certain regulations promulgated by New Jersey's Division of Consumer Affairs. The regulations require, among other things, that furniture sellers deliver furniture to customers by or before the promised delivery date or provide written notice that they will not be able to do so. Sellers must also provide notice to the purchaser that if the delivery is late, the consumer has the option of canceling the order and receiving a full refund, or agreeing to accept delivery at a specified later date. The regulations also prohibit sellers from including certain language in their contracts, such as "all sales final," "no cancellations," and "no refunds." In Spade, plaintiffs alleged that the contracts they entered into with defendants did not contain language required by these regulations, contained language prohibited by these regulations, or both. Notably, however, plaintiffs received their furniture deliveries on time.  

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Unenforceable Clause In Arbitration Agreement Does Not Void Agreement

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

Arbitration (pd)One of my children's preschool teachers was fond of saying, "you get what you get and you don't get upset." (Not to my little angel, of course, but to other children.) In Curran v. Curran, the Appellate Division basically applied this admonition to the parties to an arbitration agreement, holding that they got what they intended out of the agreement, therefore they could not argue, after the fact, that an unenforceable provision in the agreement voided the entire agreement.

In Curran, plaintiff filed for divorce from defendant. With the advice of counsel, the parties entered into a consent order to refer all issues incident to their divorce to arbitration under the New Jersey Arbitration Act. In the consent order, the parties acknowledged that any arbitration award that was entered could only be set aside or modified by a court under the limited grounds set forth in the Arbitration Act — e.g., the award was procured by fraud, corruption, or undue means, the court found evidence of "evident partiality" by the arbitrator, the arbitrator exceeded his or her powers, etc.  But the parties also included a handwritten provision, which provided: "The parties reserve their rights to appeal the arbitrator's award to the appellate division as if the matter was determined by the trial court." This is the provision that would cause all of the problems.

After the arbitrator entered a preliminary award, plaintiff requested reconsideration. The arbitrator then issued a comprehensive award setting forth his findings of fact and conclusions of law. Plaintiff filed a motion in the Law Division for an order modifying the award, citing eight alleged "mistakes of law" made by the arbitrator. Plaintiff also argued that the intent of the handwritten provision was not to allow for direct appeal to the Appellate Division, but was instead was evidence that the parties intended a more searching review of the award that what would normally be allowed under the Arbitration Act. The trial court agreed, holding that the paragraph itself was unenforceable because it purported to "create subject matter jurisdiction by agreement." The trial court noted that "[t]he authority of a court to hear and determine certain classes of cases rests solely with the Constitution and the Legislature." But the trial court agreed with plaintiff that the handwritten provision demonstrated the parties' intent to provide for "a little more review" than what would normally be allowed under the Arbitration Act. Therefore, the trial court "in essence act[ed] as the Appellate Division of the arbitrator." It performed a comprehensive review of the arbitrator's decision and affirmed the award. 

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Borrower Cannot Abandon Germane Defense To Foreclosure And Later Sue For Damages Based On That Defense

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

Foreclosure (PD)
It is always helpful when a court lets you know up front what its decision is all about. This was the case in Adelman v. BSI Financial Services, Inc., where the Appellate Division began its decision as follows: "A defendant in a foreclosure case may not fail to diligently pursue a germane defense and then pursue a civil case against the lender alleging fraud by foreclosure." Definitely not burying the lede (or is it burying the "lead"?).

In Adelman, plaintiff was the executrix of the estate of her deceased husband, Norman. Before they were married, Norman entered into a loan with his lender that was secured by a mortgage on his home. Three years later, the loan went into default, and six months after that, the lender filed a foreclosure complaint. Norman offered no defense to the complaint, and default was entered. Three months after that, he began discussing the possibility of a loan modification with the lender. However, Norman's chances for a successful modification ended when he could not make the first payment under the proposed modification and when a title search revealed five other liens on the property. 

Months later, final judgment of foreclosure was entered. Norman did not object to the entry of final judgment. One year after that, the property was sold at sheriff's sale, and nine months after the sale, the lender filed a motion to remove Norman from the property. Only then, for the first time, did Norman argue, in a motion to stay his removal from the property, that the foreclosure was improper because the loan modification cured the default. The court denied this motion. Plaintiff appealed but then withdrew the appeal. Ultimately, shortly after Norman passed, and more than five years after the loan went into default, plaintiff vacated the property. 

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Wait. This Is Arbitration? I Thought It Was Mediation.

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

Early in the movie, My Cousin Vinny, Joe Pesci's character, Vincent Gambini, tells the judge that he has significant experience trying cases in New York. The judge does some research and learns that there is no record of anyone named Vincent Gambini trying any cases in New York. Gambini then does what one should never do, he lies to the judge. He tells the judge that he tried cases under the name Jerry Gallo. Gambini thinks this is a brilliant move because Jerry Gallo is a notable New York lawyer who Gambini has read about in the papers. Unfortunately for Gambini, however, he never read the articles about Jerry Gallo's death. Naturally, the judge finds out that Jerry Gallo is dead, and confronts Gambini, which leads to the following exchange:

I imagine this may have been similar to what the defendant in Marano v. The Hills Highlands Master Association, Inc. said when it received an unfavorable arbitration award. "Did you say binding arbitration? No. We were participating in non-binding mediation. Not arbitration." Things worked out for Vincent Gambini in the movie, they did not work out so well for defendant in Marano. 

In Marano, plaintiffs owned a unit in a condominium development. The relationship between unit owners, like plaintiffs, and the association was governed by the association's bylaws, which "arguably include[d] an arbitration provision." So, after a dispute developed between plaintiffs and the condominium association over a "flooding condition" in their backyard, plaintiffs' attorney wrote to the association's attorney to demand arbitration. He received no response, so he wrote again and stated that unless the association's attorney confirmed that he was "in the process of arranging for the arbitration proceeding," plaintiffs would sue to compel arbitration. The association's attorney responded by disputing some of the claims in plaintiffs' letter but agreeing to participate in "ADR" (alternative dispute resolution). Several weeks later, plaintiffs' attorney again wrote to the association's attorney asking for confirmation that the parties would proceed to an "arbitration hearing," with a hearing officer who would serve "as an arbitrator." In response, the association's counsel contacted a retired judge to determine his availability and willingness to serve as "the arbitrator."

Up to this point, it appears clear that the parties were discussing arbitration, not mediation. What happened next created the confusion that sent the case down the path that would eventually land it before the Appellate Division.  

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Drink Up! TGI Fridays Ducks Class Action Based On Alleged Failure To List Drink Prices On Menu

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

TGIFOn a ski trip a few years back, a friend of mine decided to spend his day at a local bar instead of on the slopes. He spent the afternoon drinking with a friend and a man they met at the bar. Later in the day, the man, who had been drinking with them the whole time, said he had to go to work. He stood up, walked around to the other side of the bar, and clocked in for his shift as the bartender. He promptly gave my friend one more drink on the house, and then told him he was cut off. That is consumer fraud if you ask me. But, alas, that issue was not before the New Jersey Supreme Court in Dugan v. TGI Friday’s, Inc.

In Dugan, plaintiffs alleged that TGIF violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) and the Truth in Consumer Contract Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA) by (1) failing to list prices for alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks on its menus and (2) charging different prices for the same beverage depending upon where in the restaurant the beverage was served (i.e., at the bar as opposed to at a table). Plaintiffs sought to certify a class comprised of "all customers who had purchased items from the menu that did not have a disclosed price."

The first-named plaintiff alleged in the complaint that she only "became aware of the prices [of drinks she purchased at the bar] after she had consumed the beverages and was presented with a check," and that she was "charged $2.00 for a beer at the bar and later charged $3.59 for the same beer at a table in the restaurant." She was later deposed and admitted that she did not review the menu at the bar, or review the price of the beer indicated on her receipt from the bar, or review the beverage section of the menu at the table, or review the final bill before she paid it. Rather, she testified that she reviewed the receipts when she got home and noticed the discrepancies, and also noticed that she paid a "steep" price for a soda. 

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