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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Words Matter: Language In Retainer Agreement Bars Recovery Of Fees Incurred In Fee Arbitration Proceeding

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

Words (pd)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.

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Arbitration Award Stands Even Though One Of The Arbitrators Was Later Convicted Of Crime

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

Divorce decree (pd)Arbitration awards are, by design, difficult to vacate. But what happens when one of the arbitrators who entered the award is later convicted of a crime related, at least to some extent, to an issue in the arbitration. In Litton v. Litton, the Appellate Division addressed this interesting but (hopefully) uncommon occurrence.

In Litton, plaintiff and defendant were married in 1982 and had one child. In 2008, the Family Part entered a judgment of divorce and ordered them to share joint custody of their son. They were also directed to proceed to arbitration before a rabbinical panel, or Beth Din, which they did. The panel, which was comprised of three rabbis, entered an award requiring the husband to pay the wife $5,000 per month until he gave her a Get. (As the Appellate Division explained, a Get is a "written document a husband must obtain and deliver to his wife when entering into a divorce. Without a Get, a wife cannot remarry under Jewish law.") Once the wife received the Get, the husband's monthly support obligation would be reduced to $3,500. The husband was also ordered to pay $20,0250 in arrears, $100,000 in the wife's legal fees, and a fine of $250,000 for "his refusal to disclose information about the couple's joint funds."

Several months later, the wife moved to enforce the award and, apparently, have the husband jailed for not complying with it. The Family Part denied the request and found that the husband was not capable of complying with the support order.

Four years later, the Family Part reduced the husband's support obligation from $5,000 per month to $23 per week. Around the same time, in a "wholly unrelated matter," one of the arbitrators on the panel was charged with, and apparently later convicted  of, "criminal conspiracy to threaten and coerce Jewish husbands to give Gets to their wives."  The husband moved to vacate the arbitration award, arguing that, in light of these charges against one of the rabbis on the panel, "the award was the product of corruption." The trial court denied the motion, holding that there was no causal connection between the arbitration in 2008 and the charges against the rabbi five years later, and that there were two other rabbis on the panel who were not charged as part of the conspiracy. The husband appealed.

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Legal Fees Incurred Defending Against Counterclaim Recoverable Under New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act

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

FireplacePerhaps no three letters strike fear in the heart of New Jersey defense attorneys more than C-F-A. It is the common abbreviation for the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, a consumer protection statute that, among other things, allows successful plaintiffs to recover their attorney's fees. Until recently, however, it was not clear whether the fees incurred in defense of a counterclaim raised in response to a CFA lawsuit, as opposed to fees incurred in prosecuting the affirmative CFA claim, were recoverable. In Garmeaux v. DNV Concepts, Inc., a case of first impression, the Appellate Division held that they are, provided that the counterclaim is "inextricably caught up with" the CFA claim.

Plaintiffs in Garmeaux visited a store named The Bright Acre (operated by defendant, DNV Concepts Inc t/a The Bright Acre) for the purpose of replacing their gas fireplace which had been damaged in a storm. The store manager agreed to sell them a new fireplace and help them file an insurance claim for the costs associated with the purchase and installation. During the visit, Plaintiffs met defendant, James Risa, who the manager introduced as "[plaintiffs'] installer Jim." What plaintiffs did not know at the time, however, was that Risa owned and operated an independent fireplace installation company — defendant, Professional Fireplace Services — and that Bright Acre had a practice of referring installation work to its own employees who, like Risa, owned installation service companies. In other words, Risa would be installing the fireplace in his capacity as the owner of Professional Fireplace Services, not as an employee of Bright Acre.

Shortly after their visit to the store, plaintiffs received a proposal from Risa for the installation. They accepted and made the first installment payment. Unfortunately, not long after he began the installation, plaintiffs became dissatisfied with Risa's work habits — they alleged that he "kept an unpredictable schedule" — and the quality of his workmanship. Around the same time, they also learned that he was performing the installation in his capacity as owner of Professional Fireplace Services, not Bright Acre. After several calls to Bright Acre to attempt to resolve their issues were ignored, plaintiffs sued. 

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Havanese Day! Statements on duped dog buyer’s blog not defamatory

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

HavaneseIn Roberts v. Mintz, defendant bought what he believed was a "healthy, nine-month old, purebred Havanese," but what he got was a two-year old dog that was not a purebred Havanese, and was suffering from various health problems. Defendant complained and plaintiffs offered to refund his money in exchange for the dog. Defendant refused. He wanted the refund, but he wanted to keep the dog because he had already incurred $800 in veterinary fees and because he had become fond of the dog, which he named Moose.

One month after buying Moose, defendant began posting about his experience with plaintiffs on his blog. As you probably guessed, the posts were not positive. Eventually, plaintiffs sued in connection with six specific statements defendant made on his blog, which, among other things, accused plaintiffs of being members of a "notorious ring of South Jersey dog grifters," alleged that plaintiffs had been convicted of animal cruelty, claimed that plaintiffs' lived in a "run down farmhouse with 6 children," and described plaintiffs as "despicable human beings" who ran a "fraudulent puppy mill." Defendants also posted that they had heard from others who were "unwittingly scammed" by plaintiffs. Individuals who claimed to be plaintiffs responded to some of the posts in the comments sections of the blog, calling defendant a "liar" and a "jerk," and claiming that he "suffered from 'rage syndrome,' a behavioral condition that afflicts canines."

In lieu of answering plaintiffs' complaint, defendant moved for summary judgment, seeking to have the complaint dismissed. He also served plaintiffs with a frivolous litigation letter. Plaintiffs cross moved for summary judgment and also sought an injunction preventing defendant from defaming them. The trial court granted defendant's motion. It held that plaintiffs were barred from suing in connection with several of the statements because the one-year statute of limitations had expired. In doing so, it rejected plaintiff's claim that the statute of limitations should have been tolled because defendant had committed a continuous tort. The trial court found that the remaining statements were "opinions, epithets, and hyperbole," and were therefore "not sufficiently factual to be actionable."

Defendant then moved for sanctions, and the trial court granted the motion. Although it did no award defendant all of the sanctions he sought, it did award him $25,000 — assessed against both plaintiffs and their counsel — because plaintiffs filed their complaint without sufficient evidentiary support and because several claims were barred by the statute of limitations. 

Both sides then appealed — plaintiffs seeking to reverse the trial court's decision dismissing their complaint, and defendant seeking to reverse the trial court's decision to award him less in sanctions than what he requested

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