by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)
One of my favorite quotes from a judicial decision comes from the New Jersey Supreme Court in Atlantic Northern Airlines v. Schwimmer: "Litigation proceeding from the poverty of language is constant." I have never understood this to be a knock on the drafter. Rather, I understood it to mean that no matter how carefully you choose your words you can never make a contract, agreement, or other document litigation-proof. You see examples of this nearly every day in the daily decisions, including in the Appellate Division's recent decision in The Law Offices of Bruce E. Baldinger, LLC v. Rosen.
Baldinger involved a dispute between a law firm and its former client over attorney's fees. Defendant retained plaintiff to represent him in connection with a dispute with a contractor over work performed at defendant's home. Plaintiff and defendant entered into a retainer agreement that included an initial flat fee of $1,200 followed by hourly billing. The retainer agreement also dictated that interest at the rate of 1% per month would be charged on any unpaid balances after 30 days. The retainer agreement also contained the following provision, which is most important to our story: "If collection and enforcement efforts are required, you agree to pay counsel fees along with costs of suit." This would become important later on.
After about a month, defendant "became dissatisfied with plaintiff's representation and terminated plaintiff's services." Defendant had already paid the $1,200 flat fee, but plaintiff demanded that he also pay an addition $4,308 for work performed by plaintiff up to that point. Defendant refused to pay.
Continue reading “Words Matter: Language In Retainer Agreement Bars Recovery Of Fees Incurred In Fee Arbitration Proceeding”
by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)
The headline of this post is a little like "Dog bites man." But, given the recent trend in New Jersey of "man bites dog" type cases where courts have invalidated arbitration provisions that once seemed unambiguous (look here, here, and here for examples), the headline should make more sense.
In Columbus Circle NJ LLC v. Island Construction Co., LLC, the Appellate Division enforced an arbitration provision contained in a construction contract. Plaintiff was a single-member LLC that retained defendant to build a $1.9 million home on the bay in Avalon, New Jersey. Plaintiff's representative circulated an initial draft contract for the project that used the standard American Institute of Architects (AIA) forms. These forms contain a provision entitled "BINDING DISPUTE RESOLUTION," which, as the name suggests, requires the parties to choose "the method of binding dispute resolution" for any claims between them that are not resolved by mediation. In the draft it circulated, plaintiff's representative checked off "Arbitration pursuant to Section 15.4 of AIA Document A201-2007," rather than "Litigation in a court of competent jurisdiction." Before it was signed, the attorney for the LLC's sole member reviewed the draft and proposed changes, as did defendant, but none of these changes appear to have altered the dispute resolution provision.
During construction, disagreements arose between the parties regarding the cost of the project, leading both parties to terminate the contract. When mediation apparently failed, defendant filed a demand for arbitration. Three months later, plaintiff sued in state court. Defendant successfully moved to dismiss plaintiff's complaint and compel arbitration, and Plaintiff appealed.
Continue reading “Clear Arbitration Provision, Negotiated By Sophisticated Party While Represented By Counsel Deemed Enforceable”
When I used to teach Legal Research and Writing, one of the phrases I encouraged my students to avoid was "and/or." Like a lot of legalese, I think lawyers believe that using "and/or" leads to greater clarity in their writing when in fact the opposite is true. I suspect that, like much of what I taught them, my students avoided "and/or" in the writing they submitted to me and then quickly went back to using it as soon as they got out of my class. They may have thought that my opposition to "and/or" — like my opposition to "any and all," "heretofore," and any number of other phrases — was personal preference not generally accepted advice. If they did, however, they would have been wrong, and the Appellate Division has now confirmed as much.
In State v. Gonzalez, the Appellate Division reversed defendant's conviction and ordered a new trial because the trial court's repeated use of "and/or" in its jury charges rendered the instructions "hopelessly ambiguous and erroneous in important respects." In that case, defendant was convicted of, among other things, robbery and aggravated assault. (The emphasis on "and" will become clear later.) He was accused of conspiring with two other individuals to rob and then assault another individual. As might be expected, the prosecution and defense presented different versions of the underlying events to the jury. The problem for the Appellate Division was not the evidence that each side presented, but rather the repeated use of "and/or" by the trial judge when he instructed the jury on how to evaluate that evidence.
The Appellate Division began by observing that "[t]he imprecision of the phrase 'and/or' and criticism for its use [in New Jersey] and in other jurisdictions has been well documented." New Jersey's highest court previously described it as an expression that "has never been accredited in this state as good pleading or proper to form part of a judgment record." Courts in other states were less kind, calling it: a "verbal monstrosity, neither word nor phrase;" "an inexcusable barbarism" that was "sired by indolence;" a "mongrel expression" that was "an equivocal connective, being neither positively conjunctive nor positively disjunctive;" and an "abominable invention." The Appellate Division further observed that "[w]henever found in the decisions of [New Jersey] courts, 'and/or' has been recognized as creating ambiguity."
Continue reading “Jury Instructions Deemed Ambiguous “and/or” Erroneous “and/or” a “Mongrel Expression””
by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)
In a recent unpublished decision, the Law Division refused to enforce a purported personal guarantee in a commercial contract. Individuals and entities that include such guarantees in their contracts with customers should read the decision (or just continue reading below).
In Century Star Fuel Corp. v. Jaffe, defendant entered into a contract with plaintiff whereby defendant obtained a line of credit from plaintiff that defendant could use to purchase heating oil from plaintiff. The one-page contract, which was prepared by plaintiff, contained a single signature line for defendant’s president to sign on behalf of defendant. It also contained what the court described as “boilerplate language” providing the following: “Applicant . . . agrees and acknowledges that the person who signs this Application has the Authority to do so; and Personally Guarantees all present and future extensions of credit.” Defendant was identified as the “Applicant” in the signature line. Plaintiff alleged that this clause was unambiguous and rendered defendant’s president personally liable for defendant’s debts. Defendant disagreed and argued that the clause was unenforceable because its president never intended to be personally bound. Both parties moved for summary judgment. The trial court sided with defendant.
Continue reading “In Life, There Are No [Personal] Guarantees (Especially When They Are Buried In An Ambiguous Provision Of A Contract)”
by: Peter J. Gallagher
Here is a link to one of my articles that was recently published on Law360.com. The original title was "'Swimmers Only Between Flags' Or The Problem With 'Plain Meaning'" but the editors shortened it by removing the part about the swmmers. The sign that inspired the article (if "inspired" is not too obnoxious) is at the top of this post, and here is the opening paragraph of the article:
I was at the beach recently and passed a sign that read “Swimmers Only Between Flags.” Being a lawyer, I could not simply nod knowingly at the sign and keep walking. Instead, I thought: “well, that is ambiguous.” Did it mean that swimmers were only allowed between the flags (and not outside them) or that only swimmers were allowed between the flags (and not, for example, surfers or boogie boarders)? I mentioned it to my wife, who told me to make sure I put sunscreen on the kids. But, the sign stuck with me that day, and again when I read the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Abramski v. United States (No. 12-1493), a decision that involved competing interpretations of the “plain meaning” of a statute regulating the purchase of guns.
I hope you enjoy the article.