Litigation Privilege Protects Client’s Statement That His Former Lawyer Was a Liar, Thief, and “No Good Drunk”

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

Privilege (pd)Anyone who has practiced law for any period of time likely has a story about a misdirected email. You know, the one you meant to send to a client or a colleague, but it went to your adversary or your supervising partner instead. These situations often just result in mild to moderate awkwardness around the office, but they sometimes create bigger problems. MacNaughton v. Harmelech, a recent decision from the Appellate Division, involved the latter. But it also involved the litigation privilege, something I wrote about just a few weeks back. (What Do eBay, The "40 Year Old Virgin," And The Litigation Privilege Have In Common?). And, fortunately for defendant, the statements in his misdirected email were protected by that privilege.

In MacNaughton, plaintiff, a New Jersey lawyer, represented defendant in a lawsuit involving defendant's company. Defendant disputed plaintiff's bill and plaintiff eventually sued defendant over the bill. At some point during the litigation, the trial court asked the parties whether they were interested in mediation. Around the same time, however, plaintiff was "in contact with another of defendant's creditors about banding together to force defendant into involuntary bankruptcy." As you might expect, when defendant learned about plaintiff's efforts, it colored his decision about whether to agree to mediation. In fact, defendant sent the following email, reprinted exactly as it appeared in the Appellate Division's decision, to his lawyers on the subject:

Please I Am asking you to file a paper in the state court there WILL NOT BE AGREE NOT TO BE A MEDIATION MACNAUGHTON CALL TODAY AND ASK HIM TO TRY TO POT ME IN IN VALENTRY BANKRUPTCY AS YOU SEE HE IS A. LIAR THIEF AND NO GOOD DRUNK

NO TO BE TRUSTED THANKS

Unfortunately, defendant also copied plaintiff on this email. Upon receiving it, plaintiff filed a one-count complaint for defamation. The trial court held a hearing on whether the statements were protected under the litigation privilege. After taking testimony from defendant and his current counsel, the court applied the four-factor test from Hawkins v. Harris, and held that they were. As a result, plaintiff's claim was dismissed. Plaintiff appealed.  

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No Pay, No Play: Defendant’s Failure To Advance Arbitration Fees Is A Material Breach Of Arbitration Agreement And Precludes Enforcement Of Agreement

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

Arbitration (pd)One of the more vexing procedural issues in arbitration arises when the other side refuses to pay its share of the arbitration fees. The arbitrator won't work for free so you are faced with a dilemma, advance the fees for the other side and try to recover them through the arbitration or have your arbitration dismissed. And, if you opt for the latter approach, can you then sue in court notwithstanding the admittedly valid and binding agreement to arbitrate? The New Jersey Supreme answered one aspect of this question in Roach v. BM Motoring, LLC, holding that defendant's refusal to advance arbitration fees as it was required to do under an arbitration agreement with plaintiffs was a material breach of the contract that precluded defendant from later trying to enforce the agreement.

In Roach, plaintiffs each purchased used cars, at separate times, from defendant. As part of their purchases, each signed a Dispute Resolution Agreement, which provided that "any and all claims, disputes or issues" would be resolved through arbitration. It further required that the arbitration be conducted "in accordance with the rules of the American Arbitration Association before a single arbitrator who shall be a retired judge or attorney," and that defendant would "advance both party's [sic] filing, service, administration, arbitrator, hearing, or other fees, subject to reimbursement by decision of the arbitrator."

After purchasing her car, Plaintiff Jackson filed an arbitration demand against defendant, alleging that defendant violated the Consumer Fraud Act. The AAA advised defendant that it was required to pay the applicable filing fees and arbitrator compensation, but defendant never did. Accordingly, the AAA declined to administer the claim and further advised (1) that it would not administer "any other consumer disputes" involving defendant as a result of defendant's failure to comply with the AAA's rules, and (2) that defendant should remove the AAA name from its arbitration agreement. Jackson never received a response from defendant's to her arbitration demand.

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Reminder to Judges: No talking to jurors during deliberations

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

Jury (pd)
All lawyers know, or should know, that you are not allowed to have ex parte communications with a judge. A similar prohibition applies to judges, who are prohibited from having ex parte communications with jurors after the jury is empaneled. The unforgiving nature of this prohibition was at the forefront of Weber v. Patel, a recent unpublished Appellate Division decision.

Weber was a personal injury case. After hearing the evidence, the jury deliberated for approximately 90 minutes before purporting to return a 4-2 defense verdict. The judge responded: "Not a valid verdict. Five to one or six to zero. You've got to go back." The jury deliberated for a few more hours that day but went home without reaching a verdict. They returned the next morning at which point the judge had an ex parte conversation with them. According to the judge, one of the jurors asked the judge what would happen if they remained deadlocked. The judge responded that he would "worry about that in three days."

The judge told counsel about this conversation after it happened, but then confided that he would not really let the jury deliberate for three more days. Instead, he indicated that if the jury did not reach a verdict by the end of that day, he would likely find the jury "hung" and declare a mistrial. A little more than one hour after the judge spoke with the jurors, however, they returned a unanimous defense verdict.

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Borrowers Cannot Vacate Final Judgment Of Foreclosure Because They “Read Something Wrong”

Foreclosure (PD)
This might have seemed obvious, but the Appellate Division nonetheless recently confirmed that a borrower's claim that it "read something wrong" could not establish "excusable neglect" sufficient to vacate a final judgment of foreclosure.

In New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency v. Wolinski, borrowers defaulted on their mortgage and their lender filed a foreclosure complaint. The first complaint named borrowers and "John Doe and Jane Doe 1-10 (Names Being Fictitious) Tenants/Occupants." This complaint was voluntarily dismissed against all parties, real and fictitious. The second complaint, filed approximately six months later, also named borrowers and "John Doe and Jane Doe 1-10 (Names Being Fictitious) Tenants/Occupants." This complaint was also voluntary dismissed, but only as to the fictitious defendants.

Borrowers never answered the complaint and the lender filed a request to enter default, and then obtained final judgment by default. The lender scheduled a sheriff's sale but the borrowers filed for bankruptcy protection. The lender moved to lift the bankruptcy stay. After this motion was granted, the borrowers moved to vacate final judgment. They argued: (1) that they misread the dismissal of the second foreclosure complaint to be, like the dismissal of the first one, a dismissal of all defendants, not just the fictitious ones; and (2) that the trial court abused its discretion when it allegedly miscalculated the amount due in the final judgment. The Appellate Division rejected both of these arguments.

 

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Thank You, Captain Obvious — It Is Improper To Throw Your Records In A Dumpster In Advance Of A Lawsuit

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

When most litigators hear the term “spoliation” nowadays, they probably think of emails, servers, document retention policies, and back-up tapes. But the Appellate Division recently reminded us that old-fashioned spoliation is still alive and well (and improper).

In Hess Corporation v. American Gardens Management Company, plaintiff sued various single-purpose entities with which plaintiff had contracted to sell oil and gas. Plaintiff also sued the individual owner of all of these entities, which were essentially judgment proof, arguing that it was entitled to pierce the corporate veil and hold him liable because he had co-mingled funds and fraudulently conveyed and diverted assets from the various corporate entities for his personal use.

During discovery, plaintiff served the individual defendant with a document request. The individual defendant failed to respond and his answer was stricken. He later moved to reinstate his answer, first arguing that he could not answer the discovery request without implicating his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination (which the court rejected) and then claiming that he did not have many of the documents requested. Based on the latter, the court vacated its prior order and reinstated his answer.

 

Continue reading “Thank You, Captain Obvious — It Is Improper To Throw Your Records In A Dumpster In Advance Of A Lawsuit”

Another New York Judge Approves Service Of Process Through Facebook

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

On Monday, the Daily News reported on a "landmark" ruling by a Manhattan judge allowing a woman to serve her "elusive husband" with divorce papers via Facebook. The judge order that the divorce papers must be sent to the husband over Facebook "once a week for three consecutive weeks or until acknowledged." According to the article, the husband kept in touch with his wife by phone and through Facebook, but that he had no fixed address and refused to make himself available to be served. After all other conventional methods of service failed — he vacated his last known address in 2011, he had no job, the post office had no forwarding address for him, there was no billing address linked to his prepaid cell phone, and the DMV had no record of him — the judge allowed service through Facebook.

While interesting, this is not actually a landmark decision. Less than one year ago, a Staten Island judge permitted service via Facebook in a similar case. (Obviously, since this took place in my ancestral home, it went unnoticed — the latest proof that Staten Island truly is the "forgotten borough.") In that case, also involving a domestic dispute, a man was allowed to serve his ex-wife with "legal notice that he [did not] want to pay any more child support" via Facebook after more conventional methods of service failed.  The man's ex-wife had moved from her last known address and did not provide any forwarding information to the post office. However, she maintained "an active social media account with Facebook," therefore the judge allowed her to be served through that Facebook account.

In addition, several federal courts have also addressed this issue. For example, in one case, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that service via Facebook might not, on its own, comport with due process, but it was acceptable as a supplemental method in conjunction with other, more conventional, methods of service. In a different case, a different judge in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York refused to authorize service via Facebook where the plaintiff could not demonstrate that the Facebook profile that the plaintiff proposed to use for service was in fact maintained by the defendant or that the email address listed on the Facebook profile was accessed by the defendant. Although these cases are among the few to have considered the issue, they appear to describe the approach courts are likely to take when faced with a request to permit service via Facebook — if all other methods are exhausted, or service via Facebook is one of several methods to be employed, and if there is some showing that the individual to be served actually maintains and accesses the Facebook account, then service via Facebook would probably be acceptable.

When Can Foreclosing Lenders Be Accused Of Acting In Bad Faith?

 by:    Peter J. Gallagher

In a recent decision, the Chancery Division denied a lender’s motion to strike a borrower’s contesting answer in a foreclosure lawsuit, holding that the borrower had adequately pled a claim that the lender acted in bad faith.  While this decision is unique based on the facts of the underlying dispute, it does, by contrast, serve as a reminder that lenders generally cannot be held to have acted in bad faith when they simply attempt to enforce the terms of loan documents as written. 

In Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Schultz, plaintiff obtained a mortgage from World Savings Bank (which later changed its name to Wachovia Mortgage, FSM, which was later acquired by and merged into Wells Fargo) under a “Pick-a-Payment” mortgage program.  Several years later, this program became the subject of a class action lawsuit, the settlement of which provided that Wells Fargo both pay class members, including defendant Schultz, a small sum and also make loan modifications available to them.  It is the second of these requirements that ended up getting Wells Fargo in trouble.  Defendant presented evidence to the court that led Judge Doyne to conclude that she was “getting the run around” from Wells Fargo, including by being told that she failed to submit documents that she certified that she had submitted, and when Wells Fargo eventually confirmed that she had submitted the documents, telling her that the modification program was no longer available.  Judge Doyne observed that defendant may not have a right to be approved for a specific modification, but that once Wells Fargo made one available to her, it was obligated to “act in good faith as to the provision of the modification.”  To be clear, Judge Doyne did not rule that Wells Fargo had acted with bad faith; instead, he simply ruled that defendant had pled enough in connection with her claims related to the modification that her answer could not be stricken. 

While this case presents a situation where a lender is alleged to have acted in bad faith after agreeing to entertain an application for a loan modification, the law in New Jersey is well settled that a lender cannot generally be deemed to have acted in bad faith when it seeks to enforce the terms of a note or mortgage as written.  Stated differently, lenders cannot be barred from enforcing loan and mortgage documents merely because they seek to enforce their express contractual rights.  Indeed, “a creditor's duty to act in good faith does not extend to foregoing its right to accelerate upon default or otherwise compromising its contractual rights in order to aid its debtor.” Glenfed Financial Corp. v. Penick Corp.   For instance, in Creeger Brick & Building Supply, Inc. v. Mid-State Bank & Trust Co., — a decision cited by the Appellate Division with approval in Glenfed — a Pennsylvania appeals court held:

. . . a lending institution does not violate a separate duty of good faith by adhering to its agreement with the borrower or by enforcing its legal and contractual rights as a creditor. The duty of good faith imposed upon contracting parties does not compel a lender to surrender rights which it has been given by statute or by the terms of its contract. Similarly, it cannot be said that a lender has violated a duty of good faith merely because it has negotiated terms of a loan which are favorable to itself. As such, a lender generally is not liable for harm caused to a borrower by refusing to advance additional funds, release collateral, or assist in obtaining additional loans from third persons. A lending institution also is not required to delay attempts to recover from a guarantor after the principal debtor has defaulted.

In other words, if the defendant in Schultz was accusing Wells Fargo of bad faith simply because the lender was seeking to enforce its rights under the plain language of the relevant note and mortgage, the result would likely have been different.