Litigation Privilege Protects Client’s Statement That His Former Lawyer Was a Liar, Thief, and “No Good Drunk”

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

Privilege (pd)Anyone who has practiced law for any period of time likely has a story about a misdirected email. You know, the one you meant to send to a client or a colleague, but it went to your adversary or your supervising partner instead. These situations often just result in mild to moderate awkwardness around the office, but they sometimes create bigger problems. MacNaughton v. Harmelech, a recent decision from the Appellate Division, involved the latter. But it also involved the litigation privilege, something I wrote about just a few weeks back. (What Do eBay, The "40 Year Old Virgin," And The Litigation Privilege Have In Common?). And, fortunately for defendant, the statements in his misdirected email were protected by that privilege.

In MacNaughton, plaintiff, a New Jersey lawyer, represented defendant in a lawsuit involving defendant's company. Defendant disputed plaintiff's bill and plaintiff eventually sued defendant over the bill. At some point during the litigation, the trial court asked the parties whether they were interested in mediation. Around the same time, however, plaintiff was "in contact with another of defendant's creditors about banding together to force defendant into involuntary bankruptcy." As you might expect, when defendant learned about plaintiff's efforts, it colored his decision about whether to agree to mediation. In fact, defendant sent the following email, reprinted exactly as it appeared in the Appellate Division's decision, to his lawyers on the subject:

Please I Am asking you to file a paper in the state court there WILL NOT BE AGREE NOT TO BE A MEDIATION MACNAUGHTON CALL TODAY AND ASK HIM TO TRY TO POT ME IN IN VALENTRY BANKRUPTCY AS YOU SEE HE IS A. LIAR THIEF AND NO GOOD DRUNK

NO TO BE TRUSTED THANKS

Unfortunately, defendant also copied plaintiff on this email. Upon receiving it, plaintiff filed a one-count complaint for defamation. The trial court held a hearing on whether the statements were protected under the litigation privilege. After taking testimony from defendant and his current counsel, the court applied the four-factor test from Hawkins v. Harris, and held that they were. As a result, plaintiff's claim was dismissed. Plaintiff appealed.  

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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.   

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Court Approves Service Of Complaint Via Facebook, No Word On How Many “Likes” It Received

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

Facebook (pd)Facebook is useful for a lot of things — humble bragging about your children, posting professionally taken candid photographs of your smiling family, announcing your engagement/marriage/pregnancy/baby's gender to several hundred of your closest friends, etc. In K.A. v. J.L., a New Jersey court added another item to this list. After observing that courts in other jurisdictions were almost evenly split on the issue, the court allowed plaintiffs in that case to serve defendant via Facebook. (When it researched the issue, I assume the court reviewed one of my prior posts about two New York courts that also allowed service via Facebook.)

K.A. involved very unusual facts. Plaintiffs sued defendant to "enjoin defendant from holding himself out as the father of their [adopted] son." Defendant, who was not the son's biological father of record, sent the son a friend request over Facebook. The son declined. Defendant then reached out to the son over Instagram, claiming that he was the son's biological father. Defendant allegedly informed the son that he knew where the son was born, and disclosed both the identity of the son's birth mother and that the son had "biological siblings at large." (Plaintiffs allege that defendant also sent a Facebook friend request to the son's sister, who, like the son, declined the invite.) Defendant also "incorporated a picture of [the son] into an image comprised of three separate photographs, each featuring a different person," and purportedly claimed that the collage was a picture of his children. Defendant shared this picture with the public on his Facebook account. Plaintiffs believe defendant obtained the image of the son from the son's Facebook account.

Plaintiffs claimed that defendant was a "complete stranger to them," and that they had no contact with him prior to the events that led to the litigation.  Plaintiffs' counsel attempted to serve cease and desist letters on defendant at his last known address via certified and regular mail. The certified letters were returned as unclaimed, but the letters sent by regular mail were never returned. Plaintiffs then sued, seeking an injunction preventing defendant from contacting their son or claiming to be his father. They sought permission from the court to serve the complaint on defendant via Facebook.

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In New Jersey, You Can Now Disapprove A Real Estate Contract By Email Or Fax (But Not Telegram)

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

Telepgraph (pd)Anyone who has bought or sold real estate in New Jersey is familiar with "attorney review." When you buy or sell a house, you sign a contract that is almost always prepared by a broker. The contract must contain a standard provision stating that the buyer and seller have the right to have an attorney review the contract. This "attorney review" period lasts three days. The contract becomes legally binding if, at the end of that three-day period, neither the buyer's nor the seller's attorney disapproves of the contract. If either side disapproves, their attorney must notify the other side's broker by certified mail, telegram, or personal service. In Conley v. Guerrero, a case that seems to be a case study in the concept of raising form over substance, the New Jersey Supreme Court updated this requirement to allow the notice of disapproval to also be sent by fax or email. (Those of you still using telegrams may be out of luck, however, because this no longer appears to be an appropriate method of service for the notice of disapproval.) 

In Conley, plaintiffs signed a form contract to purchase a condominium unit from sellers. It contained the standard "attorney review" provision. After signing the contract, but during the attorney review period, sellers received competing offers to purchase the property and eventually entered into a new contract to sell it to a new buyer for a higher price. Sellers' attorney sent a disapproval of plaintiffs' contract to both plaintiffs' counsel and the broker (who was a duel agent represented both plaintiffs and seller) during the attorney-review period. He sent the notice via email, which plaintiffs' counsel and the agent acknowledged receiving within the attorney review period. Nonetheless, plaintiffs claimed that the sellers were bound by the contract and had to sell to his clients because the disapproval was not sent in the proscribed manner — by certified mail, telegram, or hand delivery.

Plaintiffs sued, seeking specific performance. Both sides moved for summary judgment. The Chancery Division granted defendants' motion and dismissed the complaint. The Chancery Division held that, while seller did not comply with the method-of-delivery requirements set forth in the contract, this breach was only "minor" because plaintiffs' counsel acknowledged receiving the notice within the attorney review period. Therefore, the Chancery Division held that the "underlying justification for the attorney review clause" — to protect parties against being bound by broker-prepared contracts without the opportunity to review them with their attorneys — was accomplished.

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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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