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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Court Adopts Low Tech Solution to High Tech Evidence Problem

Smart phone(PD)
Litigation has been transformed over the past decade or so by e-discovery. An entire industry has developed around the collection and presentation of emails, text messages, social networking posts, etc. In large commercial cases, it is not unusual to have an outside vendor handling this evidence from discovery through trial. But what about a different kind of case, for example, a contested domestic violence hearing, where the victim, often acting pro se, comes to court with a smart phone containing allegedly threatening text messages, and seeks to introduce those messages into evidence.  They only exist on the phone, so there is nothing that the victim can physically introduce into evidence, and therefore no documentary evidence of the messages that can be reviewed on appeal. How then does a court accept evidence from a plaintiff's cell phone into the court record?

This was precisely the question facing the court in E.C. v. R.H., a recent unpublished Law Division decision. In that case, plaintiff alleged that defendant harassed her through unwanted texts, social media posts, and voice mails. She asked the court to enter a restraining order against defendant. At the start of the hearing on her application, plaintiff sought to introduce evidence of several allegedly harassing communications that were stored on her cell phone. The court observed that the court rules, which were designed to handle tangible evidence, were not designed to handle a request like this: "[S]ome of the more traditional methods of introducing evidence into court do not address the specialized needs and practical problems which may arise when parties come into court and seek to introduce information stored on their cell phones directly into evidence." The Court further observed that this problem was exacerbated in the domestic violence context, which involves "expedited summary proceedings [and] self-represented litigants who have little or no legal training at all." 

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It is Still Not a Breach Of The Duty Of Good Faith And Fair Dealing For Lenders To Enforce The Terms Of Their Loan Documents

         by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

It seems like I read cases like this every few weeks: A borrower defaults on a loan, tries to work something out with the bank, but the bank for some reason decides not to work out a deal and instead decides to enforce the terms of the underlying loan documents (usually through foreclosure or some other means). The borrower then sues, alleging that the lender acted in bad faith by thinking about working out a deal, and maybe even taking some steps to do so, but eventually deciding not to. Although I have obviously summarized these cases in broad terms and the devil is often in the details, the result is almost always the same – the borrower loses.

The reason for this is simple. The law in New Jersey is well settled that a lender will not generally be deemed to have acted in bad faith when it seeks to enforce the terms of a note or mortgage as written.  Stated differently, lenders cannot be barred from enforcing loan and mortgage documents merely because they seek to enforce their express contractual rights.  Indeed, “a creditor's duty to act in good faith does not extend to foregoing its right to accelerate upon default or otherwise compromising its contractual rights in order to aid its debtor.” Glenfed Financial Corp. v. Penick Corp.   For instance, in Creeger Brick & Building Supply, Inc. v. Mid-State Bank & Trust Co., — a decision cited by the Appellate Division with approval in Glenfed — a Pennsylvania appeals court held:

. . . a lending institution does not violate a separate duty of good faith by adhering to its agreement with the borrower or by enforcing its legal and contractual rights as a creditor. The duty of good faith imposed upon contracting parties does not compel a lender to surrender rights which it has been given by statute or by the terms of its contract. Similarly, it cannot be said that a lender has violated a duty of good faith merely because it has negotiated terms of a loan which are favorable to itself. As such, a lender generally is not liable for harm caused to a borrower by refusing to advance additional funds, release collateral, or assist in obtaining additional loans from third persons. A lending institution also is not required to delay attempts to recover from a guarantor after the principal debtor has defaulted.

Try as borrowers might, New Jersey courts have repeatedly and consistently rejected efforts to hold lenders liable for violating the duty of good faith and fair dealing when those lenders have simply attempted to enforce the terms of their loan agreements.

 

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Thank You, Captain Obvious — It Is Improper To Throw Your Records In A Dumpster In Advance Of A Lawsuit

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

When most litigators hear the term “spoliation” nowadays, they probably think of emails, servers, document retention policies, and back-up tapes. But the Appellate Division recently reminded us that old-fashioned spoliation is still alive and well (and improper).

In Hess Corporation v. American Gardens Management Company, plaintiff sued various single-purpose entities with which plaintiff had contracted to sell oil and gas. Plaintiff also sued the individual owner of all of these entities, which were essentially judgment proof, arguing that it was entitled to pierce the corporate veil and hold him liable because he had co-mingled funds and fraudulently conveyed and diverted assets from the various corporate entities for his personal use.

During discovery, plaintiff served the individual defendant with a document request. The individual defendant failed to respond and his answer was stricken. He later moved to reinstate his answer, first arguing that he could not answer the discovery request without implicating his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination (which the court rejected) and then claiming that he did not have many of the documents requested. Based on the latter, the court vacated its prior order and reinstated his answer.

 

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Going Once . . . Going Twice . . . Sold! To The Person Who Cannot Remain Anonymous!

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher

While data breaches and cyber security are, unfortunately, regular topics on the nightly news, a New Jersey trial court recently dealt with a much more low-tech privacy issue. In Brennan v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, the trial court addressed the “intriguing question” (the court’s words, not necessarily mine) of “whether the winning bidders in a public auction have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their personal information transmitted to a public agency in connection with their participation in [a public] auction.” In other words, if you are the winning bidder at a public auction, must the public entity that held the auction produce documents revealing your identity in response to an OPRA request? In Brennan, the trial court’s answer was a qualified yes.

In Brennan, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office seized baseball memorabilia from an individual who it alleged had illegally sold prescription drugs. The memorabilia was later sold at an auction administered by a third-party that the prosecutor’s office hired to handle the auction. Plaintiff filed an OPRA request seeking, among other things, documents that would reveal the identities of the winning bidders at the auction – registration forms and bid documents that revealed names and phone numbers of the winning bidders. The prosecutor’s office refused to provide this information, claiming that the winning bidders reasonably expected that their identities would not be made public. Plaintiff sued to compel the production of the documents.

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