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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Another Day, Another Lawsuit About Injuries Suffered At A Gym (Another Reason For Me Not To Go To The Gym)

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

Weight lifters (pd)
I have written about the enforceability of waivers in health club membership agreements before, including just last week. Now the Appellate Decision has issued another decision on this same topic, Crossing-Lyons v. Town Sports International, Inc., which nicely illustrates the types of injuries that are covered by these agreements and those that are not.

First, a little background. The two seminal cases on this issue are Stelluti v. Casapenn and Walters v. YMCA , both of which I have written about before.

In Stelluti, plaintiff was injured when the handlebars of her stationary bike dislodged and caused her to fall during a spin class. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that these injuries were covered under the broad release in plaintiff's membership agreement. It reasoned that exercising entails vigorous physical exertion (depending, of course, on the person exercising – I am not sure my time on the stationary bike this morning was terribly vigorous), and that the member assumes some risks — faulty equipment, improper use of equipment, inadequate instruction, inexperience, poor physical condition of the user, or excessive exertion — as a result. While a health club must maintain its premises in a condition safe from known or discoverable defects, it need not ensure the safety of members who voluntarily assume some risk by engaging in strenuous physical activities that have a potential to result in injuries.  

Continue reading “Another Day, Another Lawsuit About Injuries Suffered At A Gym (Another Reason For Me Not To Go To The Gym)”

Today at SCOTUS – [Insert Bad Fish Pun Here]

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) 

 In an interesting case this morning at the US Supreme Court, the Justices will be asked to determine whether a fish is a “tangible object.” No. Really. That is the issue in Yates v. United States.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal, makes it a crime to “destroy, mutilate, conceal, or cover up any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to obstruct a federal investigation. It is unlikely that Congress had fish in mind when it passed the Act, but this is nonetheless the federal law that was used to convict John Yates — captain of the Miss Katie, a commercial fishing boat out of Cortex, Florida — for throwing 72 red grouper that were allegedly below the legal limit back into the ocean.  

 

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It Was Not Fun To Stay (Swim) At The YMCA For This Plaintiff Or His Counsel

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

 

A "garden variety slip and fall case" led to an instructive Appellate Division opinion on exculpatory clauses and the requirements of the New Jersey Court Rules governing appellate practice. The plaintiff prevailed on its appeal and had its lawsuit against defendant, which had been dismissed by the trial court, reinstated; but his counsel had to endure a scolding from the Appellate Division in the process.

In Walters v. YMCA, Plaintiff sued for injuries suffered after he slipped on the steps leading from an indoor pool at the YMCA in Newark, New Jersey. The YMCA did not deny that plaintiff slipped, but argued that plaintiff's claims were barred by a broad exculpatory clause in his membership agreement, which purported to hold the YMCA harmless for "any personal injuries or losses sustained . . . on  any YMCA premises or as a result of a YMCA sponsored activit[y]."  The trial court granted the motion and plaintiff appealed.

The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the exculpatory clause was "unenforceable as against public policy" because enforcing it would "eviscerate the common law duty of care owed by defendant to its invitees." The Appellate Division distinguished Walters from a prior decision, Stelluti v. Casapenn Enters., Inc., in which the New Jersey Supreme Court held that an exculpatory clause shielded a health club from injuries sustained by a plaintiff when the handlebars of her stationary bike dislodged and caused her to fall during a spinning class. In that case, the inherently risky nature of the plaintiff's physical activity was "the key consideration . . . to justify enforcing the exculpatory clause at issue." In Walters by contrast, the type of accident — slipping and falling while walking on stairs — "could have occurred in any business setting." Accordingly, the "inherently risky nature of defendant's activities as a physical fitness club was immaterial" to the Appellate Division's analysis.

 

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Who Says Babies Don’t Play Bocce? Law Division Rules On Age Restricted Housing Conversion

by: Gregory S. Ricciardi

With the continuing strain on residential development projects, some developers may seek relief in the form of a recent New Jersey law, which allows for the conversion of age-restricted projects to non age-restricted projects.  A recent opinion from the Law Division may serve as a helpful tool to developers seeking to take advantage of the law.

Heritage at Towne Lake, LLC v. Planning Board of Sayreville interprets and applies N.J.S.A. 45:45:22A-46.3 (the “Conversion Statute”), which regulates the conversion of age restricted units to non-age restricted units in development projects.  In this case, the Sayreville Planning Board (the “Board”) denied a developer’s application to convert a one hundred eighty-four (184) unit, age restricted community to a non-age restricted community, containing the same number of units, but configured differently. 

Pursuant to the Conversion Statute, the approving board has broad discretion to require the applicant to prove that the conversion can be granted  without substantial determinant  to the public good and will not substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance.  The Conversion Statute establishes a set of criteria that applicants must prove, which include: (1) that the site meets RSIS standards; (2) recreation improvements and other amenities are revised, as needed, to meet the needs of the converted development; (3) water and sewer systems are adequately designed;  and (4) sufficient parking is available to accommodate the converted development. 

In addition to arguing that the applicant failed to meet the burden of proof as to the conditions of the Conversion Statute, the Board claimed that approving the conversion application would create a density violation.  Since the applicant received a density bonus for age-restricted development, if the conversion were approved, the Board argued that the project would require a (d) variance for density pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70d(5).  The court dismissed this argument, citing the plain meaning of the Conversion Statute, which states:

“No application for an amended approval seeking the authority to construct a converted development shall be considered a “use variance” or other “d variance” application pursuant to subsection d.  of section 57 of P.L.  1975, c 291 (C:4055D-70).”

The court ultimately concluded that the applicant had met its burden of proof and that the denial of the conversion application by the board was unreasonable.  The court remanded the matter back to the Board an ordered that the conversion be approved subject to the conversion of the originally proposed bocce courts to a “tot lot” for children.  

The Conversion Statute remains an attractive option for distressed, age-restricted development projects, provided the projects and the application for conversion can meet the statutory requirements, including a 20% set aside for affordable housing.    The publication of this decision helps shed light on the conversion process and eliminate confusion as to its application.