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. 

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A New Twist On Who Gets The House When The Relationship Ends

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

House + money (pd)If you read this blog then you know that failed relationships often make for the most interesting cases. For example, if your would-be spouse calls off your wedding, then you are usually entitled to get the engagement ring back. But, if you cancel your wedding reception, you may not be entitled to a refund from the venue where it would have taken place. And, of course, if your ex-wife agreed to pay all "utilities" under a divorce settlement but fails to pay for water filtration services that remained in your name and you get sued by the water filtration company, your ex-wife will be required to reimburse you for those charges. Now, Burke v. Bernardini can be added to this list.

In Burke, plaintiff and defendant were involved in a "romantic relationship." (They had actually known each other for 25 years before they began dating.) While they were dating, plaintiff bought property on which he built a house where he and defendant lived together. He paid approximately $368,000 for the property and another $100,000 for improvements and additions. Both plaintiff and defendant contributed furnishings.

Before buying the property, the parties entered into an agreement that provided:

[Plaintiff] acknowledges and agrees that [defendant] has provided, and will continue to provide[,] companionship to him of an indefinite length. [Plaintiff] promises and represents that upon closing, the home shall be deeded and titled in the name of "[plaintiff] and [defendant], as joint tenants with the right of survivorship."

(As a side note, only in the hands of a lawyer does "'til death do us part" become "I agree to provide companionship of an indefinite length.") The agreement also provided that defendant would have no "financial obligations for the home, including, but not limited to, property taxes, homeowners association fees, and homeowners insurance."  

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Arbitration Provision Bounced Again, Even After Kindred Nursing Decision.

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

Arbitration (pd)As readers of this blog know, arbitration provisions in consumer contracts are difficult to enforce in New Jersey. (Click here or here for a refresher.) There was some belief that the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. P'ship v. Clark might change this, but it does not appear, at least not yet, that it has. In a recent case, Defina v. Go Ahead and Jump 1, LLC d/b/a Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park, the Appellate Division was asked to revisit, in light of Kindred Nursing, its prior decision refusing to enforce an arbitration provision in a contract between a trampoline park and one of its customers. The Appellate Division did so, but affirmed its prior decision, holding that Kindred Nursing did not require New Jersey courts to change the manner in which they approach arbitration provisions.

I wrote about Defina in its first go-around with the Appellate Division — Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park's Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable. The underlying facts of the case are unfortunate. A child fractured his ankle while playing "Ultimate Dodgeball" at a trampoline park. Before entering the facility, the child's father signed a document entitled, "Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk." The document contained an arbitration provision, which provided: 

If there are any disputes regarding this agreement, I on behalf of myself and/or my child(ren) hereby waive any right I and/or my child(ren) may have to a trial and agree that such dispute shall be brought within one year of the date of this Agreement and will be determined by binding arbitration before one arbitrator to be administered by JAMS pursuant to its Comprehensive Arbitration Rules and Procedures. I further agree that the arbitration will take place solely in the state of Texas and that the substantive law of Texas shall apply.

Notwithstanding this provision, the child's parents sued the trampoline park in state court, alleging tort claims for simple negligence and gross negligence, and statutory claims for alleged violations of the Consumer Fraud Act and the Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act. 

Continue reading “Arbitration Provision Bounced Again, Even After Kindred Nursing Decision.”

Court Bounces Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision

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

Sky zone (pd)A few months ago, I wrote about the enforceability of an arbitration provision in a case involving a child who was injured at a trampoline park ("Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park's Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable"). In that case, the trampoline park moved to compel arbitration, but the court denied the motion, holding that the waiver was unenforceable under the New Jersey Supreme Court's seminal decision in Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Group, L.P, because there was no clear and unambiguous statement that plaintiff was waiving the right to sue in court to obtain relief. Today, the Appellate Division released its decision in Weed v. Sky NJ, LLC, which involved a similar issue at a similar trampoline park and in which, unfortunately for the trampoline park, the court arrived at the same conclusion (albeit for different reasons).

In Weed, plaintiff, a minor, went to a SkyZone trampoline park. Before being allowed to jump, her mother was required to sign a document with a title only a lawyer could love — "Conditional Access Agreement, Pre-Injury Waiver of Liability, and Agreement to Indemnity, Waiver of Trial, and Agreement to Arbitrate" (the "Agreement") Having apparently read my blog about the enforceability of these types of agreements at trampoline parks, the Agreement explained, in some detail, that, by signing the Agreement, the participant was waiving the right to sue in court, the right to trial by jury, etc. Plaintiff's mother signed it, and plaintiff's visit to the park on this occasion was apparently uneventful.

Not so when she returned several months later. On that visit, plaintiff was accompanied by a friend and her friend's mother. Both children were again required to sign the Agreement before being allowed to jump. Plaintiff's friend's mother signed on behalf of both children. Notably, the Agreement required that an adult signing on behalf of a child had to be the child's parent or legal guardian, or had to have been granted power of attorney to sign on behalf of the child. Plaintiff's friend's mother did not meet these requirements, but nonetheless signed the Agreement and plaintiff and her friend were allowed to enter. Plaintiff was injured during this visit to the park and sued. 

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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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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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