Words Matter: Language In Retainer Agreement Bars Recovery Of Fees Incurred In Fee Arbitration Proceeding

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

Words (pd)One of my favorite quotes from a judicial decision comes from the New Jersey Supreme Court in Atlantic Northern Airlines v. Schwimmer: "Litigation proceeding from the poverty of language is constant." I have never understood this to be a knock on the drafter. Rather, I understood it to mean that no matter how carefully you choose your words you can never make a contract, agreement, or other document litigation-proof. You see examples of this nearly every day in the daily decisions, including in the Appellate Division's recent decision in The Law Offices of Bruce E. Baldinger, LLC v. Rosen.

Baldinger involved a dispute between a law firm and its former client over attorney's fees. Defendant retained plaintiff to represent him in connection with a dispute with a contractor over work performed at defendant's home. Plaintiff and defendant entered into a retainer agreement that included an initial flat fee of $1,200 followed by hourly billing. The retainer agreement also dictated that interest at the rate of 1% per month would be charged on any unpaid balances after 30 days. The retainer agreement also contained the following provision, which is most important to our story: "If collection and enforcement efforts are required, you agree to pay counsel fees along with costs of suit." This would become important later on.

After about a month, defendant "became dissatisfied with plaintiff's representation and terminated plaintiff's services." Defendant had already paid the $1,200 flat fee, but plaintiff demanded that he also pay an addition $4,308 for work performed by plaintiff up to that point. Defendant refused to pay.

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If You Cancel Your Wedding Reception Can You Get Your Money Back From The Venue? (Or, When Is A Liquidated Damage Clause Enforceable?)

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

Wedding reception (pd)In the past, I have written about engagements gone wrong, including a case involving a failed (alleged) engagement and the return of a (purported) engagement ring that the recipient initially claimed to have lost, but later (apparently) found, and marriages gone wrong, including a case asking whether a marriage can be annulled because of a former wife's equitable fraud, but never a marriage reception gone wrong. With the Appellate Division's recent decision in Corona v. Stryker Golf, LLC, I am finally able to fill this gap in my failed relationship scholarship. On a more routine note, Corona also provides a helpful primer on the enforceability of liquidated damages clauses in contracts.

In Corona, plaintiff entered into a contract with defendant to hold her wedding reception at defendant's catering hall. Defendant agreed to provide the venue, food, and beverages for a contract price of approximately $12,012.80. The contract required an initial, non-refundable deposit of $2,500. Plaintiff made this payment and two subsequent payments of $5,166.35 and $1,725.35, for a total of $9,391.70. The contract contained the following provision regarding cancellation:

Cancellation under any circumstances is not acceptable and, in addition to forfeiting all deposits, the Patron will remain responsible for paying the entire balance of the contract price (excluding service charge) for the Event even if the Event does not occur.

Unfortunately, six months before the reception was to be held, plaintiff notified defendant that she was cancelling the wedding. Relying on the cancellation provision in the contract, defendant refused to return any of the money Plaintiff had paid under the contract. Plaintiff sued. Both parties moved for summary judgment. After trying to settle the case, the trial court granted defendant's motion and dismissed the complaint. The trial court held that plaintiff "twice breached the contract," although the decision does not explain how. On the issue of damages, defendant argued that the liquidated damages clause was "grossly disproportionate to [any] actual damages sustained by defendant and thus unenforceable as a penalty." The trial court rejected this argument, holding that the terms of the contract were "clear and unambiguous," therefore the court was required to enforce those terms as written.

Plaintiff appealed and the  Appellate Division reversed.

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Hell Hath No Fury Like . . . An Angry Litigant And Former Fiance?

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

Courts don't often impose sanctions for frivolous litigation, but when they do, it usually involves something unusual (apologies to John Winger). Unusual — and perhaps even unfortunate — would be the only way to describe the facts of a recent decision from the Appellate Division that revived a party's request for legal fees in a case involving a failed (alleged) engagement and the return of a (purported) engagement ring that the recipient initially claimed to have lost, but later (apparently) found.

 

 

Continue reading “Hell Hath No Fury Like . . . An Angry Litigant And Former Fiance?”