Emails Between Counsel Create Agreement To Arbitrate, Even Where Contractual Arbitration Provision Would Have Been Unenforceable

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

Arbitration (pd)Generally, when you end an email to your adversary with "we'll be awaiting your motion," something has gone wrong. This was certainly true in So v. Everbeauty, Inc.

In So, plaintiff sued defendant, his former employer, alleging that defendant had violated his rights under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the Workers' Compensation Law. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, defendant's counsel suggested to plaintiff's counsel that the matter should be arbitrated under the arbitration provision in plaintiff's employment contract. Plaintiff's counsel initially responded that his client was "leaning towards . . . going to arb," but that counsel still needed to speak with plaintiff, who was away on vacation. Later, plaintiff's counsel emailed defendant's counsel as follows: "I was able to speak to my client and we will proceed to arbitration. I can draft stip of dismissal." Two weeks later, however, plaintiff apparently had a change of heart. His counsel wrote to defendant's counsel stating that plaintiff had "instructed him to make efforts to avoid arbitration." Seeing the writing on the wall, plaintiff's counsel ended the email, "we'll be awaiting your motion."

As expected, defendant moved to compel arbitration, but did so in a somewhat unusual way. Defendant's counsel acknowledged that the arbitration provision in plaintiff's employment contract was unenforceable because it was not "sufficiently specific." But defendant argued that the back-and-forth between counsel created a separate, binding agreement to arbitrate. The trial court denied the motion, holding that (1) the emails between counsel did not "evidence a bargained for exchange but only a statement by plaintiff's counsel as to what his intentions were going forward in response to inquiries from defense counsel," and (2) there was no consideration to support the alleged agreement to arbitrate. Defendant appealed.   

Continue reading “Emails Between Counsel Create Agreement To Arbitrate, Even Where Contractual Arbitration Provision Would Have Been Unenforceable”

When Is Possession Not Really Possession? (And By “Possession” I Mean In The “Mortgagee In Possession” Sense Of The Word)

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

Lenders are often faced with a dilemma when dealing with property that is in foreclosure and has been abandoned by the borrower. A lender must, under New Jersey law, maintain the property "to such standard or specification as may be required by state law or municipal ordinance." Also, the lender has an obvious interest in protecting the value of its collateral. But the lender does not want to take "possession" of the property and be deemed a "mortgagee in possession," because that would impose upon the lender the duty of a "provident owner," which includes the duty to manage and preserve the property, and which subjects the lender to liability for damages to the property and damages arising out of torts that occur on the property. Unfortunately, the point at which a lender takes "possession" of property is not entirely clear. I have written about this before, and the Appellate Division's recent opinion in Woodlands Community Association, Inc. v. Mitchell provides some additional guidance, which should be helpful to lenders.

In Woodlands, defendant was the assignee of a note and mortgage related to a unit in plaintiff's condominium development. The unit owner defaulted on the loan and vacated the unit. At the time, the unit owner was not only delinquent on his loan payments, but also owed "substantial sums" to the association for "unpaid monthly fees and other condominium assessments." After the unit owner vacated the unit, defendant changed the locks and winterized the property. (As the Appellate Division noted, "[w]interizing entails draining the  pipes, turning off the water and setting the thermostat for heat to protect the pipes.") After the unite owner vacated the unit, plaintiff sued him to recover the delinquent fees. It later amended its complaint to include the lender, "alleging that [[the lender] was responsible for the association fees as it was in possession of the property."

Both parties moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted plaintiff's motion, holding that defendant was a mortgagee in possession and therefore was liable for the maintenance fees. On the key of issue of what it meant to be in "possession" of the unit, the trial court held as follows: "[D]efendant held the keys, and no one else [could] gain possession of the property without [defendant's] consent. This constitutes exclusive control, which indicates the status of mortgagee in possession." Defendant appealed. 

Continue reading “When Is Possession Not Really Possession? (And By “Possession” I Mean In The “Mortgagee In Possession” Sense Of The Word)”

Lease “Signed Under Protest” Not Binding (And Have You Ever Heard Of “Grumbling Acceptance”?)

Sign contract(Pd)
What happens if a tenant signs a lease but writes "signed under protest" under the signature? According to the Appellate Division, it means the lease is not binding. More importantly, perhaps, the Appellate Division has never heard of the contract theory known as "grumbling acceptance." If this is one that you did not cover in law school, join the club.

In Bergenline Property Group, LLC v. Coto, defendant was a longtime tenant of premises owned by plaintiff. There was an oral lease between the parties for most of the tenancy. But, in 2013, plaintiff served a notice to quit on defendant, requiring defendant to sign a written lease and pay a security deposit or vacate the property. Defendant refused and plaintiff served another notice to quit, requiring defendant to vacate the property for refusing to agree to reasonable changes to the terms of the lease. Defendant did not vacate and plaintiff filed an eviction complaint.

At the hearing on plaintiff's eviction complaint, the parties agreed to allow the court to determine the reasonableness of several provisions in the proposed lease and modify the lease as necessary. The court did just that, issuing a written opinion that modified some of the terms of the lease. Despite defendant's prior agreement to be bound by the court-modified lease, defendant refused to sign it. Plaintiff then moved for a judgment of possession. At the hearing on that request, the court gave defendant another chance to sign the lease. In response, Defendant first delivered a lease with a signature that was not witnessed and a post-dated check for the security deposit. Plaintiff refused to accept both. Defendant then delivered a lease, signed by defendant and witnessed by defendant's counsel, and a money order for the security deposit. However, directly below defendant's signature on the lease appeared the words "signed under protest." Plaintiff refused to accept this lease as well, but gave defendant one more chance to come to plaintiff's counsel's office and sign the lease. Defendant was apparently driven to plaintiff's counsel's office, but refused to leave the car or execute a new lease.

Plaintiff then renewed its request for a judgment of possession. Defendant opposed the motion, arguing, among other things, that the "signing under protest" language did not change the document, and stating, "parenthetically," that if plaintiff was "offended" by that language, plaintiff could strike it. The court entered the judgment of possession, finding that, by placing the "signing under protest" language on the lease, there was no meeting of the minds, and therefore no binding contract. As a result, defendant failed to sign the lease and violated the court's order requiring her to do so.

Continue reading “Lease “Signed Under Protest” Not Binding (And Have You Ever Heard Of “Grumbling Acceptance”?)”

Another Reminder That Even When You Win You Still Lose Under The New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

The Appellate Division issued an unpublished decision today that again emphasizes the power (some might say, inequity) of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.  In Logatto v. Lipsky, plaintiffs hired defendant to build an addition on their home and perform other renovations.  Although defendant prepared a written proposal with cost estimates, he never prepared a written contract.  After the project was 90% complete, and plaintiffs had paid him $247,500, defendant notified plaintiffs that actual expenses exceeded the proposed costs, and therefore he required an additional $78,469.37 to complete the project.  Plaintiffs refused and, when the parties could not come to a resolution on the issue, defendant left the job.  Plaintiffs then sued defendant under the Consumer Fraud Act for the costs of completion of the project, and defendant counterclaimed for $50,000 in unpaid costs.  Both parties moved for summary judgment, but both motions were denied.

The case was tried to a jury.  After plaintiffs put on their evidence, they moved for judgment on liability in connection with their Consumer Fraud Act Claims.  The trial court granted the motion, finding that there were technical violations of the Act (failure to have a signed contract and change orders).  However, the trial court left the question of whether plaintiffs had suffered an "ascertainable loss," a requirement under the Consumer Fraud Act, to the jury.  The jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of defendant, finding that plaintiffs did not suffer any ascertainable loss.  After the verdict, however, plaintiffs moved for, among other things, fees and costs under the Consumer Fraud Act.  The trial court denied the motion, but the Appellate Division reversed the trial court and remanded the issue back to the trial court for disposition of the fee motion. 

You may be asking yourself – how is this possible?  How can a defendant prevail at trial but still be responsible for the plaintiffs' legal fees?  What happened to the "American Rule"?  The answer to all of these questions is, the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act.  Under the Act, as it has been interpreted by the New Jersey Supreme Court — in cases like Cox v. Sears Roebuck & Co. and Weinberg v. Sprint Corp. — plaintiffs can recover costs and fees if they prove that a defendant committed an unlawful practice, even if the victim cannot show any ascertainable loss.  While a plaintiff cannot recover treble damages under the Act without an ascertainable loss, it can still recover its costs and fees.  What this means is that if a plaintiff survives summary judgment and presents a prima facie case of ascertainable loss, it will be able to recover its costs and fees even if, as in the Logatto case, it ultimately loses on the merits at trial. 

This case, like seemingly every other decision handed down in connection with the Consumer Fraud Act, should be a cautionary tale for any business or entities that sell products or provide services that are covered by the Act.