Last week, I wrote about an exception to the strict liability normally imposed on dog owners under New Jersey's dog bite statute. (A short time before that, I wrote about yet another exception to strict liability under the dog bite statute, so the exceptions are obviously more interesting than the rule.) This post is about a different dog bite case, Ward v. Ochoa, with a similar result even though it was not decided under the dog bite statute. Ward involved a home inspector who was attacked and severely injured while performing a home inspection. She sued the dog owners (who eventually settled) along with the real estate agency and real estate agent who were selling the house. Like the dog groomer in last week's post, however, the home inspector's claims were dismissed.
Although the temperature today is supposed to reach 90 degrees, this post is about frozen pipes. More specifically, pipes in a house that is under contract for sale that freeze and cause property damage after the scheduled, but not completed, closing, but before the buyer takes possession of the home. In a case like that, who is liable for the damage?
In Bianchi v. Ladjen, plaintiff was under contract to buy a home. It was an all cash sale, no mortgage was involved. The closing was scheduled for New Year's Eve. Plaintiff performed a walk through on the morning of the closing and reported no damage to, or issues with, the home. The closing could not be completed as scheduled, however, because plaintiff did not wire the balance of the purchase price to the title company prior to the closing as he had been instructed to do. Instead, plaintiff brought a certified check to the closing. As a result, the parties entered into an escrow agreement, which provided that the title company would hold "all closing proceeds" and the "Deed & Keys" in escrow until the check cleared.
This is where it gets tricky.
It is a question I have been asked a number of times over the past few years: If a lender refinances an existing mortgage, does the new lender step into the shoes of the old lender in terms of priority? In other words, if you refinance a first mortgage, does it remain a FIRST mortgage or is it a new mortgage that is junior to other mortgages that may have been recorded after the first mortgage? Granted this is not a question as weighty as, say, "what is the meaning of life?" but if you are a lender, it is an important one. I have written about this topic before, but the Appellate Division's recent decision in Ocwen Loan Services, Inc. v. Quinn, added a new wrinkle. In that case, the question was whether a refinanced first mortgage retains its first status over a life estate, as opposed to another mortgage or lien, that was recorded prior to the original mortgage.
In Ocwen, defendants conveyed their residential property to their daughter but retained a life estate in the property. (In other words, the daughter owned the property, but defendants could live there until they died.) One year later, defendants, their daughter, and her husband acquired a loan from plaintiff that was secured by a mortgage on the property. Two years after that, the daughter refinanced the mortgage for a higher amount. The title commitment that plaintiff obtained did not disclose the recorded life estates, so defendants were not required to sign the mortgage. Through the refinancing, the daughter, among other things, paid off the prior mortgage, which defendants had signed.
Two years later, the daughter defaulted on the refinanced mortgage and plaintiff foreclosed. The parties cross-moved for clarification on the status of defendants' life estate. Plaintiff argued that the life estate was subordinate to the refinanced mortgage, meaning defendants could not rely on it to stop the foreclosure. Defendants argued that the foreclosure had to be dismissed because "they did not sign the [refinanced] mortgage nor pledge their life estates in connection with the [ ] loan refinancing."
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.
I recently wrote about Garmeaux v. DNV Consepts, Inc., a case in which the Appellate Division held that, under New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act, successful plaintiffs can, in certain circumstances, recover legal fees they incurred in connection with both the prosecution of their affirmative claims and the defense against any counterclaims. If the facts relevant to a counterclaim are "inextricably caught up with," and related to the common core of, the facts relevant to an affirmative CFA claim, then legal fees can be awarded for both claims. In another recent decision, Riccardi v. Bruno, the Appellate Division addressed a similar issue but arrived at a result that was less favorable to plaintiff than the result in Garmeaux.
In Riccardi, plaintiff purchased a home from one of the defendants. The home had been damaged in a fire and required "extensive renovations" before being put on the market. (Although it was not listed as having been fire damaged, the certificate of occupancy issued by the township at the closing noted "rehab after fire.") After the closing, plaintiff allegedly discovered numerous problems with the house, including mold, burnt and fractured joists, and damaged foundation walls. He sued the seller and several related entities (architect, contractor, home inspector, etc.), alleging breach of contract and a violation of the CFA.
Default was entered against several defendants for failing to answer the complaint, and the claims against several others were dismissed either by summary judgment or at the close of plaintiff's case in chief. The jury then determined that the two remaining defendants — the prior owners of the property — violated the CFA. The jury's verdict was based on a "knowing concealment, suppression, or omission of a material fact with the intent that other would rely upon that fact." (The decision does not identify the fact that was omitted.) The jury found no cause of action under the CFA based on an unconscionable commercial practice, fraud, false pretense, false promise , or misrepresentation. And, it awarded plaintiff only $4,500, which was "attributable to the cost to repair a damaged window frame and to dispose of buried construction litter."