New Jersey Court Answers The Burning Question: Can I Sue The Owner Of An Abandoned Church If I Slip And Fall On The Sidewalk Outside The Church?

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

Slip and fall (pd)
The facts and legal issues in sidewalk slip and fall cases sometimes read like they are pulled from law school final exams. In New Jersey, the baseline legal rule is clear — owners of commercial properties generally have a duty to maintain, in reasonably good condition, the sidewalks abutting their property, while owners of residential properties do not. But does a property owner have a duty to maintain its sidewalks when:

  • the property is both residential and commercial, like a multi-family home where one unit is owner occupied and the others are rented (click here for more on that, but the short answer is that it depends on whether the property is primarily residential or primarily commercial ); or
  • the plaintiff is a tenant and sues the landlord after slipping on a sidewalk outside the rental property (click here for more on that, but usually, yes); or
  • the property is a commercial property, final judgment of foreclosure has been entered in favor of the lender, but no sheriff's sale has been scheduled (click here for more on that, but if the lender can be considered a mortgagee in possession, then yes); or 
  • the property is owned by a condominium or common-interest community (click here for more, but generally, yes if it's a private sidewalk within the condominium, no if it's a public sidewalk abutting the condominium); or
  • the property is residential and the fall is caused by sweetgum spikey seed pods that fell from a tree on the defendant's property (click here, but, no).

And now one more can be added to the list thanks to the Appellate Division's decision is Ellis v. Hilton United Methodist Church, where the question presented was whether "sidewalk liability applies to an owner of a vacant church."

Continue reading “New Jersey Court Answers The Burning Question: Can I Sue The Owner Of An Abandoned Church If I Slip And Fall On The Sidewalk Outside The Church?”

“[Saint] Cecelia You’re Breaking My Heart” (By Not Paying My Commission)

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

House + money (pd)If you are a realtor and you enter into an exclusive agreement to find tenants for your client's property, but then your client enters into a rent-free lease with a tenant, do you still get a commission? The answer, at least according to the Appellate Division in Century 21-Main Street Realty, Inc. v. St. Cecelia's Church, is no. 

In Century 21, plaintiff entered into an exclusive listing agreement with defendant, a church, under which  plaintiff would list an "inactive school building," which the church owned, for either sale or lease. Under the agreement, plaintiff was entitled to a commission equal to 6% of the sales price, if the property was sold, or one month of rent, if the property was leased. During the term of the agreement, the church entered into a lease with the local school board, which allowed the board to use the building "rent free" for the first 26 months. It also contained two, six-month "hold over terms." If the board continued to occupy the building during either or both of these terms, it would have to pay the church $900,000 per term. The lease also required the board to repave the parking lot, and allowed, but did not require, the board to make any repairs or renovations to the building that it saw fit, at the board's expense.

Two months after the church signed the lease, plaintiff demanded a commission based on the "asserted costs" of the repairs the board intended to make to the building. It asserted that it was entitled to a commission equal to "two month's rent due based on rental, repair evaluation." Apparently, plaintiff assumed the repairs would costs $1.5 million, divided that amount by the 26-month term of the lease to come up with the per-month cost of the repairs, and then claimed that it was entitled to two month's payment as its commission. The church refused to pay any commission and plaintiff sued. 

Continue reading ““[Saint] Cecelia You’re Breaking My Heart” (By Not Paying My Commission)”

Appellate Division: Arbitration Agreement in Non-Profit’s Bylaws Enforceable

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

Contract(pd)
The enforceability of arbitration provisions is a hot topic in New Jersey right now. Several recent cases suggest that these provisions may be less readily enforceable than previously thought, or at least that courts are taking a closer look at them than they may have in the past. The author of an article in the NJ Law Journal even questioned whether New Jersey courts were "anti-arbitration." With this in mind, the Appellate Division's  unpublished opinion in Matahen v. Sehwail, in which it enforced an arbitration provision contained in the bylaws of a New Jersey mosque, is noteworthy.

In Matahen, plaintiffs and defendants were members of the general assembly in the mosque. The general assembly was comprised of all "active members" of the mosque, which was defined as "those who attend prayers regularly, participate 'actively' in mosque 'activities,' abide by the bylaws, pay dues, and practice Islam daily." The general assembly was the highest authority in the mosque, but the Board of Trustees, "which represent[ed] the general assembly," was the highest "policy-making authority" in the mosque. 

In the complaint, plaintiffs alleged that certain defendants used the mosque's credit cards for personal expenses, conspired to keep a former employee on the mosque's health insurance plan after he stopped working for the mosque, and used the mosque's funds to pay for one of defendant's children's school tuition. Rather than filing a responsive pleading, defendants moved to compel arbitration, under a provision in the mosque's bylaws, which provided:

The board shall create an Islamic Arbitration Committee of 3-5 members in case of disagreement among board members or general assembly members of matters related to the center, such committee shall consist of a Lawyer, an Imam, and Community Leaders. All disputes arising hereunder shall be resolved by arbitration by the aforementioned committee pursuant to policies and procedures established by such committee from time-to-time. All parties involved shall approve of the members of the Arbitration Committee. Decisions of the committee shall be binding on all parties and may be entered in a court of competent jurisdiction.

(emphasis added). The trial court denied the motion, holding that the claims alleging misuse of corporate funds "address those types of concerns that are standard in a corporation type dispute," and therefore "clearly belong in a court to be adjudicated." Defendants appealed.

The Appellate Division reversed, primarily because of the "utmost latitude" given to non-profits in the "regulation and management of intracorporate affairs." The Appellate Division noted that "a non-profit organization's private law is generally binding on those who wish to remain members," and "only the most abusive and obnoxious by-law provision could properly invite a court's intrusion into what is essentially a business thicket." The arbitration agreement in Matahen did not rise to this level.

Reading the arbitration provision in the bylaws as a whole, the Appellate Division had little difficulty holding that the Board and general assembly intended that all disputes pertaining to the mosque be handled through arbitration. Because the claims asserted in the complaint "concerned mosque affairs," the Appellate Division held that they fell within this provision notwithstanding that, as the trial court held, they may have also been justiciable in court.

Among other things, plaintiffs argued that the provision was unenforceable because it was not contained in a contract, but merely in the mosque's bylaws, to which, plaintiffs claimed, they were not parties. The Appellate Division disagreed, holding that, as a matter of law, "by-laws of a voluntary association become a part of the contract entered into by a member who joins the association."

The Appellate Division also rejected plaintiffs' argument that the arbitration provision was unenforceable because it failed to "advise those subject to [it] that they [ ] waived their right to maintain an action in court." While the Appellate Division acknowledged that the provision did not reference waiver, this shortcoming did not render it unenforceable. The Board and the general assembly shared the authority to amend the bylaws, but never saw fit to amend them to include any reference to waiver. Therefore, the Appellate Division held that it was "incongruous for plaintiffs to complain the arbitration clause [was] defective and unenforceable when they were part of the two intra-corporate bodies responsible for its contents." The Appellate Division further held:

Plaintiffs' position is far different from parties to the typical contract, where generally each party seeks to advance its own interests and not those of the other. There was no "adverse" party here who sought to induce plaintiffs to enter into a contract containing an arbitration clause that failed to contain the subject waiver, hoping to gain an advantage. Plaintiffs merely find themselves facing a bylaw they either composed or ratified by failing to amend its contents.

Accordingly, the arbitration provision was enforceable notwithstanding the lack of any reference to waiver of the right to sue in court.

Ultimately, the Appellate Division's holding in Matahen is noteworthy, not because it signals a shift in the recent scrutiny of contractual arbitration provisions in general, but because it suggests that courts may be more likely to enforce such provisions in specific situations involving the governance of non-profit organizations.