NJ Supreme Court: If Borrower Abides By Terms Of Settlement Agreement, Lender Must Modify Mortgage

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

Mortgage (pd)Lawsuits arising out of foreclosures and mortgage modifications are common. (Even more common than lawsuits about gyms or health clubs if you can believe that.) Nearly every day there is a decision from the Appellate Division arising out of a residential foreclosure. Most of these fall into the same category — borrower defaults and loses home through foreclosure then challenges lender's standing to foreclose after the fact — but some are more interesting. That was the case with GMAC Mortgage, LLC v. Willoughby, a decision released yesterday by the New Jersey Supreme Court involving a mortgage modification agreement entered into to settle a foreclosure lawsuit.

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about Arias v. Elite Mortgage, a lawsuit over the alleged breach of a mortgage modification agreements. In that case, borrowers entered into a mortgage modification agreement with their lenders that included a Trial Period Plan ("TPP"). As the name suggests, a TPP requires borrowers to make reduced monthly payments in a timely manner for a trial period, after which, if they make the payments, the lender agrees to modify their mortgage. In Arias, the Appellate Division held, as a matter of first impression, that if a borrower makes the trial payments under the TPP, the lender must modify the mortgage, and if it doesn't, the borrower can sue for breach. However, the holding was purely academic because the borrower in that case failed to make one of the trial payments in a timely manner so it could not sue. 

In GMAC Mortgage, the New Jersey Supreme Court faced a similar situation with a much less academic result. 

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Reminder to Judges: No talking to jurors during deliberations

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

Jury (pd)
All lawyers know, or should know, that you are not allowed to have ex parte communications with a judge. A similar prohibition applies to judges, who are prohibited from having ex parte communications with jurors after the jury is empaneled. The unforgiving nature of this prohibition was at the forefront of Weber v. Patel, a recent unpublished Appellate Division decision.

Weber was a personal injury case. After hearing the evidence, the jury deliberated for approximately 90 minutes before purporting to return a 4-2 defense verdict. The judge responded: "Not a valid verdict. Five to one or six to zero. You've got to go back." The jury deliberated for a few more hours that day but went home without reaching a verdict. They returned the next morning at which point the judge had an ex parte conversation with them. According to the judge, one of the jurors asked the judge what would happen if they remained deadlocked. The judge responded that he would "worry about that in three days."

The judge told counsel about this conversation after it happened, but then confided that he would not really let the jury deliberate for three more days. Instead, he indicated that if the jury did not reach a verdict by the end of that day, he would likely find the jury "hung" and declare a mistrial. A little more than one hour after the judge spoke with the jurors, however, they returned a unanimous defense verdict.

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Alleged Omission In Consumer Contract Does Not Violate New Jersey Consumer Protection Statute

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

Washer dryer (pd)New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) has long been a favorite of  plaintiff's attorneys, but there is another consumer protection statute that is rapidly gaining on the CFA in popularity — the Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA) (or, as it is sometimes awkwardly pronounced, "ta-KWA-na"). Although it has been around for thirty years, case law interpreting the TCCWNA is still in its infancy because the act has only recently become a common claim in putative consumer class actions. In a new, unpublished decision, Matijakovich v. P.C. Richard & Son, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, addressed one unsettled aspect of the still developing body of case law surrounding the TCCWNA.

First, a brief primer on the TCCWNA, which provides, in part:

No seller . . . shall in the course of his business offer to any consumer or prospective consumer or enter into any written  consumer contract  .  .  .  or display any written . . . notice or sign . . . which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller . . . as established by State or Federal law at the time the offer is made . . . or the . . . notice or sign is given or displayed.

Its purpose is to prevent deceptive practices in consumer contracts by prohibiting the use of illegal terms or warranties. To state a claim under the TCCWNA, a plaintiff must prove four elements: (1) that it is a consumer; (2) that defendant is a seller; (3) that the seller offered a consumer contract; and (4) that the consumer contract contained a provision that violated a legal right of the consumer or a responsibility of the seller. Any party found to have violated the TCCWNA is liable for a civil penalty of not less than $100, actual damages, or both, in addition to reasonable attorneys' fees and court costs.

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“Here’s the mail it never fails . . . :” Judge Posner Criticizes “Rhetorical Envelopes” In Which Judicial Opinions Are “Delivered To The Reader”

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

Judge (pd)[Apologies for the Blue's Clues reference in the title to this post.]

In his concurring opinion in a recent Seventh Circuit decision — United States v. Dessart — Judge Posner agreed with the majority's conclusions, but wrote separately to express his "reservations about some of the verbal formulas in the majority opinion." He did not "criticize the majority for reciting them" because, as he noted, they are "common, orthodox, even canonical." But he did criticize the "verbal formulas" themselves as being "inessential and in some respects erroneous" and thus, he urged, "ripe for rexamination."

What were the "verbal formulas" that Judge Posner was so keen to criticize? Just some of the legal standards that we see recited in opinions every day. For example, the commonly-used "abuse of discretion" standard, of which Judge Posner appears not to be a big fan. In his concurring opinion, Judge Posner noted that the majority defined this standard as including "among other missteps, 'material errors of law.'" This apparently did not jibe with Judge Posner's understanding of discretion and its abuse, as he explained:

Of course, material errors of law are potentially very serious, but what has that to do with discretion or its abuse? Common as the term "abuse of discretion" is in opinions dealing with appeals from district court decisions, I find it opaque. If the appellate court is persuaded that the trial court erred in a way that makes the trial court's decision unacceptable, it reverses. What has discretion to do with it? And "abuse" seems altogether too strong a term to describe what may be no more than a disagreement between equally competent judges – the trial judge and the appellate judges – that the appellate judges happen to be empowered to resolve as they see fit.

Similarly, he challenged the majority's similarly well-settled statement that an appellate court, when reviewing a trial court's decision to issue a search warrant, must afford that decision "great deference." (Among the issues in the Dessart case was whether a search warrant was supported by probable cause.) Judge Posner acknowledged that the standard comes from a Supreme Court decisions holding that "[a] magistrate's determination of probable cause should be paid great deference by reviewing courts," but questioned it nonetheless. First, he questioned why "great" deference should be afforded to such decisions since "warrants [are] usually issued by the most junior judicial officers – and often police or prosecutors can shop among magistrates for one who is certain or almost certain to respond affirmatively to a request to issue a warrant." Second, Judge Posner noted that "[n]othing in the [Fourth] amendment requires warrants – ever," therefore it was not fair, in Judge Posner's opinion, to conclude, as is often concluded, that the Constitution expresses a preference for searches conducted pursuant to warrants or to afford great deference to a trial court's decision to issue one.

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Jarndyce v. Jarndyce — Obsure Reference, Appropriate Reference, Both?

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

In the first paragraph of an Appellate Division decision handed down earlier this week, In The Matter of the Estate of Harry Sable, the court noted that the tortured procedural history of the case had not yet "achieved the status of the fictional [case of] Jarndyce v. Jarndyce described in Charles Dickens' Bleak House." I have always felt that Charles Dickens was one of those authors that people claim to love because they think they should love him, even though many have never read him, or at least not since they had to read him in High School. I do not claim to love Charles Dickens or claim to have read him so I did not get the Appellate Division's reference and assumed — naturally — that if I didn't get it then it must be an obscure reference.

Apparently, I was wrong.

It turns out that Bleak House is a common reference for courts in New Jersey and elsewhere that is almost always cited for the exact proposition that it was used by the Appellate Division. For the ignorant (like me), Bleak House:

concerns the fate of a large inheritance. The case has dragged on for many generations before the action of the novel, so that, when it is resolved late in the narrative, legal costs have devoured the whole estate. Dickens used it to attack the chancery court system as being near totally worthless, as any "honourable man among its [Chancery's] practitioners" says, "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!" Jardyce v. Jardyce was

(Thank you Wikipedia.)

 

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Are You A Bad Parent If You Take Your Child To A Pink Concert?

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

This was, literally, the question before a Law Division judge in Zoe v. Zoe. In that case, the parents of an eleven-year-old girl were in the midst of ongoing litigation over physical custody of their child when the mother took her daughter to a Pink concert at the Prudential Center. The father claimed that the mother abused her parental discretion by doing so because the concert was not age appropriate. Specifically, the father claimed that there was profanity in some of Pink’s songs and that the concert included sexually suggestive themes and dance performances. He claimed that if he had been at the concert with his daughter, he would have walked her out rather than let her stay.

The court rejected the father’s claims and held instead that: (1) after divorce, each parent has a right to exercise reasonable parental discretion over a child’s activities; (2) after divorce, each parent has a constitutional right to exercise reasonable parental discretion in introducing and exposing their child to the creative arts; (3) the court will generally not interfere with decisions made by parents that are consistent with these rights; and (4) the decision by the mother in Zoe was a reasonable and appropriate exercise of her rights.

 

 

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Appellate Division Holds That Trial Court Had The Right To Decide If Foreclosure-Related Dispute Was Arbitrable, But Decided It Wrong

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

Most of the current litigation over foreclosures has played out in the courts, but a recent decision from the Appellate Division, Banquez v. Deutsche Bank National Trust Company, involved a foreclosure-related dispute that was headed to arbitration. Actually, the decision in Banquez sent the dispute to arbitration after the trial court originally held that it could stay in state court where the plaintiff originally filed it. It is an interesting decision on the enforceability of arbitration agreements, particularly on the issue of whether an arbitrator or a court gets to decide the threshold question of whether a dispute is arbitrable.

In Banquez, plaintiff purchased residential property in Linden and executed a note and mortgage to the lender. At the same time, plaintiff signed a separate arbitration agreement with the lender. The agreement gave either party the “absolute right” to demand that any “Claim” be submitted to arbitration. The agreement defined “Claim” broadly and required that any dispute about whether a Claim was subject to the agreement would be resolved by an arbitrator, not a court. The agreement also contained several “Excluded Claims” that would not be covered by the agreement, including actions “to effect a judicial or quasi-judicial foreclosure.” The agreement was silent as to whether an arbitrator or a court would decide whether a purported Excluded Claim would be governed by the agreement. Finally, the agreement contained a class action waver, which prohibited plaintiff from participating in a class action, absent the lender’s consent, if the lender elected to arbitrate a claim. The agreement provided that the validity and effect of the class action waiver was to be “determined exclusively by a court and not by an arbitrator.”

 

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