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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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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Size Matters: Seventh Circuit Rejects Subway Footlong Settlement Because It Provided No Meaningful Benefit To Class Members

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

Subway (pd)I am a regular Subway customer, so I read the Seventh Circuit's opinion, In re. Subway Footlong Sandwich Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, with great interest. You probably remember the events that spawned this litigation. As the Seventh Circuit described it: "In January 2013 Matt Corby, an Australian teenager, purchased a Subway Footlong sandwich and, for reasons unknown, decided to measure it. The sandwich was only 11 inches long. He took a photo of the sandwich next to a tape measure and posted the photo on his Facebook page. Thus a minor social-media sensation was born." And, "[w]ithin days of Corby's post, the American class-action bar rushed to court," therefore, a class action lawsuit was also born. It ended a few years later with a settlement, which the Seventh Circuit just overturned.

To say that the Seventh Circuit was critical of the settlement would be an understatement. Its opinion is filled with subtle, and not so subtle, criticisms of the settlement and plaintiffs' counsel. For example, early in its opinion, the court observed: "In their haste to file suit [ ] the lawyers neglected to consider whether the claims had any merit. They did not." It did not get much better for plaintiffs from that point on.

The court noted that the parties engaged in limited, informal discovery early on in the case, with the intent of going to mediation. This discovery revealed that plaintiffs' claims were deficient. It showed that "the length of the [baked] bread has no effect on the quantity of food each customer receives." First, all of Subway's raw dough is exactly the same size. So, even the few rolls that bake to approximately a quarter-inch less than 12 inches because of natural, and unpreventable, "vagaries in the baking process" provide the same bread as those that bake to the full 12 inches. Second, Subway standardizes the amount of meat and cheese that its "sandwich artists" put on each sandwich, so whether the bread is 12 inches long or a quarter-inch short, the customer still gets the same amount of food. (In the interest of full disclosure, because I am a regular, I do occasionally get an extra slice of ham, salami, and pepperoni on my six-inch BMT at my local Subway.) "This early discovery, limited though it was, extinguished any hope of certifying a damages class."

"Rather than drop the suits as meritless," however, plaintiffs shifted the focus of the lawsuit from one seeking damages to one seeking injunctive relief. THey filed an amendec complaint and, after mediation, reached a settlement with Subway, under which Subway would, for four years, implement practices designed to ensure, the the extent possible, that its sandwich rolls measured at least 12 inches long. But, the settlement noted that "because of the inherent variability in food production and the bread baking process, Subway could not guarantee that each sandwich roll [would] always be exactly 12 inches or greater in length after baking." In other words, Subway would try to fix, but could not guarantee that it would fix, the problem that spawned the lawsuit. 

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Dismissal With Prejudice Too Harsh A Remedy For Expert’s Unavailability

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

Gavel (pd)There is often tension between a court's need to effectively manage its docket and the overriding objective that a lawsuit be resolved on its merits and not because a party (or its counsel) misses a deadline. Courts establish deadlines. If they are ignored, can the court — as a sanction, and in the interest of managing its docket — dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice? According to the Appellate Division in a recent unpublished decision, Trezza v. Lambert-Wooley, the answer to this question is "no," unless the noncompliance was purposeful and no lesser remedy was available to the court. 

In Trezza,plaintiffs sued defendants for medical malpractice. Three years after the lawsuit was filed, the court set a peremptory trial date. This was rescheduled when the court did not reach the case on the trial date. The trial did not take place on the rescheduled date or a subsequent rescheduled date, both times because defendant's designated trial counsel was unavailable. Thereafter, the Presiding Judge issued a sua sponte order scheduling trial for approximately four months later and setting forth "specific and stringent terms as to the course and conduct of the case relative to trial." The order mandated that: (1) the trial date would not be adjourned to accommodate the parties' or counsels' personal or professional schedules; (2) counsel was required  to monitor the schedules of their parties, witnesses, and experts, and if one or more were not going to be available on the trial date, arrange for a de bene esse deposition ahead of trial; and (3) if designated trial counsel was not available on the trial date, alternate counsel would have to be found, whether or not from the same firm.

Five days before the scheduled trial date, plaintiff's counsel requested that the trial be carried for four days due to the unavailability of plaintiff's liability expert, which he only learned about a few days prior to the request. Defendants' counsel consented to the request. The judge assigned to the case considered the request but, in light of the Presiding Judge's order, determined that he did not have the authority to grant the adjournment. He sent the parties to the Presiding Judge, who denied the request and directed the parties to proceed to trial. "Predicated upon the terms of the order, the age of the case, and plaintiff's expert's unavailability, the judge [then] dismissed the complaint with prejudice." Plaintiffs appealed.

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Latest Round In Fight Over Rare Double Eagle “Coins” Goes To Government

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

Double eagle (pd)
I have written before about Langbord v. United States Department of the Treasury. (Click here and here for the prior posts.) This is a case about ten, 1933 Double Eagle coins, which I described in a prior post as follows:

[The Double Eagle] is a $20 gold piece that was designed by famed artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens after he was commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt to help beautify American coinage. Almost a half million Double Eagles were minted, but none were ever officially released into circulation. Shortly after they were minted, newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, seeking to stem a run on the banks, issued Executive Order 6102, which made it illegal to "hoard" large amounts of gold. Accordingly, the U.S. Mint was ordered to stop issuing gold coins and to melt down any gold coins in its possession, including the Double Eagle. As part of this process, two Double Eagles were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for posterity, but the rest were supposed to have been melted down.

However, not all of the coins were melted down. Around 20 were smuggled out of the U.S. Mint. Over the years, nine were located by, or returned to, the Secret Service. Another one was seized by the Secret Service in a sting operation at the Waldorf Astoria after the owner, Stephen Fenton, was lured there by agents posing as potential buyers. (It was later stored in the World Trade Center but was removed just a few months before the 9/11 terror attacks, just one of the interesting facts in this case.) After Fenton sued, the government agreed to auction off the coin and split the proceeds with the owner. It sold for $7.6 million, more than twice the world record for any coin sold at auction at the time.

Shortly after the auction, Joan Langbord notified the government that she had found 10 Double Eagles in a safe-deposit box belonging to her father, Israel Switt. (According to the government, however, this discovery was hardly fortuitous. The government claims that all of the Double Eagles that escaped its control went through Switt's hands. It claims that he worked with a corrupt cashier at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia to smuggle Gold Eagles out of the Mint before they could be melted down.) The lawyer representing Ms. Langbord and her sons, the same one who represented Fenton, proposed a sale of the 10 coins like the one agreed to with Fenton. The government  indicated it was "amenable," so the Langbords sent the coins to the U.S. Mint for inspection. After the coins were authenticated, the Langbords requested that they be returned, but the U.S. Mint refused. The Langbords responded by submitting a "seized asset claim" demanding the return of the coins. When they were not returned, the Langbords sued.

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