Entrepreneurial Inmate Loses Lawsuit

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

Jail (pd)While pro se lawsuits by prisoners are not unusual, you don't see ones like Tormasi v. Hayman every day.

In Tormasi, plaintiff sued several officials from the prison in which he was serving a life sentence. In the lawsuit, he claimed that they improperly seized his intellectual property assets and corporate records. As the Appellate Division explained: "During his incarceration, plaintiff acquired various intellectual property assets, which he assigned to Advanced Data Solutions Corporation (ADS) in exchange for sole ownership of the corporation." At some point during his incarceration, prison officials seized plaintiff's personal property, including: "1) miscellaneous corporate paperwork related to ADS . . 2) patent-prosecution documents; 3) an unfiled provisional patent application; 4) several floppy diskettes; and 5) various legal correspondence." Plaintiff sued in federal court, asserting a claim under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, various federal civil rights claims, and a state law claim for inverse condemnation.

 

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As If You Needed Reminding: Don’t Violate Protective Orders!

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

Gavel (pd)The Appellate Division recently reminded all lawyers of the importance of complying with protective orders. In Rotondi v. Dibre Auto Group, LLC, the Appellate Division affirmed a trial court's decision to disqualify plaintiff's counsel from continuing to represent plaintiff because she violated such an order.

In Rotondi, plaintiff purchased a new car from defendant car dealership. One year later, she attempted to refinance the car with the dealer, but ended up filing a class action lawsuit against the dealer and various other entities involved in the refinancing for alleged improprieties in the refinancing process. She alleged violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and various other statutory and common law causes of action. Although filed as a putative class action, plaintiff's attempt to certify the class were eventually denied and the case, in the words of the trial court, "ultimately became simply a claim by [plaintiff] against the dealer."

As part of that lawsuit, the trial court entered a protective order that allowed the parties to designate materials as "Confidential" or "Attorneys' Eyes Only." Under the order, documents designated as "Confidential" could only be used by the "receiving party for purposes of the prosecution or defense of [the] action," and could not be used "by the receiving party for any business, commercial, competitive, or other purpose." Documents designated as "Attorneys' Eyes Only" could only be "disclosed [ ] to outside counsel for the receiving party and to such other persons as counsel for the producing party agrees in advance or as ordered by the court."

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For Richer And For (Perhaps Very Shortly) Poorer: Wife Must Testify About Husband’s Allegedly Hidden Assets

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

For husbands, the lesson from a recent Appellate Division opinion is that you cannot assert the marital privilege in an attempt to keep their wives from being deposed by a judgment creditor about assets that you might be trying to conceal from that judgment creditor. In U.S. Electrical Services, Inc. v. Electrical Solutions Group, Inc., plaintiff obtained a judgment for approximately $165,000 against defendants (a corporation and an individual who was alleged to be the sole shareholder of the corporation). In post-judgment proceedings, plaintiff applied for, and obtained, an order of discovery permitting the deposition of the individual defendant's wife based upon plaintiff's assertion that she had knowledge of certain assets that the individual defendant had failed to disclose.

The individual defendant moved to vacate the order, arguing that any testimony from his wife would be subject to the marital privilege — codified at N.J.SA 2A:84A-22 — and that he did not consent to the disclosure of the information. The trial court denied the motion, holding that the individual defendant's wife could be deposed about her "first-hand knowledge and observations of facts and occurrences." The individual defendant appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's order. It started with the general proposition that privileges must be narrowly construed. With this in mind, it turned to the specific elements of the marital privilege: (1) a communication; (2) made in confidence; (3) between spouses. The Appellate Division further noted that the purpose of the privilege is to "encourage[] free and uninhibited communication between spouses, and, consequently, [to] protect[] the sanctity and tranquility of marriage." But, because the "only effect" of the privilege is to "suppress[] [] relevant evidence," it must be "confined as narrowly as is consistent with the reasonable protection of marital communications."

In U.S. Electrical Services, the individual defendant argued that any "personal and business financial records" that he "brought into the martial home where [his wife] may have seen them [were] necessarily [ ] confidential communication[s] between spouses." The Appellate Division disagreed for a number of reasons.

First, it held that documents that were stored in the marital home and were observed by a spouse do not a "confidential communication" make. The privilege protects communications, not conduct or occurrences. Thus, a wife's observations of what her husband did, including bringing documents into the marital home, are not covered by the privilege. The court did hold, however, that communications about the documents could potentially be protected under the marital privilege "provided the right proofs" (which were not present in the instant case).

Second, the Appellate Division held that the contents of the documents were not automatically privileged "just because both parties have seen them." In this regard, the court held that many business and financial records are generated by, or submitted to, third parties outside of the marital home. As a result, they may not be confidential at all. Moreover, the Appellate Division observed that, even if documents were initially confidential, "placement in the home where another member of the household or a guest could discover them does not guarantee continued confidentiality." At a minimum, a party seeking to assert the privilege would have to demonstrate that the underlying documents remained confidential while in the marital home.

Third, the Appellate Division held that the act of leaving document in the marital home does not encourage communications between spouses or protect marriages, the very purpose behind the privilege. Absent convincing evidence that applying the privilege would protect and further the interests it was designed to advance, the Appellate Division saw no reason to recognize the privilege.

Ultimately, the take home message from U.S. Electrical Services is that simply bringing documents into the marital home, and even sharing them (or making them visible or available to  your spouse) does not bring the existence or content of those documents within the marital privilege. But, both the trial court and Appellate Division left open the possibility that communications about such documents, in the right situation, might be privileged.

Extra! Extra!

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

The latest edition of  "Commercial Litigation Briefs" is out. The newsletter is published by my firm and contains short articles on topics and cases of interest to commercial litigators. This month there are two articles — one by me and one by my colleague, John DeSimone. My article discusses a recent decision from the Delaware Supreme Court that required Wal-Mart to produce attorney-client communications to shareholders as they investigated whether to bring a derivative lawsuit against the company. John's article reports on a recent New Jersey Appellate Division decision about debt buyers trying to collect on charged-off credit card accounts they purchased from other debt buyers, which also provides helpful guidance for litigators on the hearsay exception for business records.

Enjoy!

New Jersey Supreme Court Considers Condominium Association’s Ban On Window Signs

 by:  Katharine A. Muscalino

On September 1, 2010, a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Appellate Division struck down, as an unconstitutional limitation on free speech, a condominium association’s governing documents’ prohibition on posting signs in unit windows, with the exception of a single “For Sale” sign.  On October 24, 2011, the New Jersey Supreme Court heard argument on these issues, and is expected to issue an opinion either upholding the Appellate Division’s rejection of such restrictions or overturning the Appellate Division and finding that such signs may be banned.  Because many Associations’ governing documents include bans like the one at issue in Mazdabrook, the New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion could have a wide-ranging impact, and should likely inspire condo associations to review their by-laws so as not to run afoul of its holding.

 

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