This Never Would Have Happened On The Nina, Pinta, Or Santa Maria.

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

Columbus boats (pd)

If the name of your company is Christopher Columbus, LLC then it is probably reasonable for you to expect that you will be subject to the maritime jurisdiction of the federal courts. Nonetheless, this was the issue presented in a recent Third Circuit decision, In The Matter Of The Complaint Of Christopher Columbus, LLC (t/a Ben Franklin Yacht), As Owner Of The Vessel Ben Franklin Yacht, For Exoneration From Or Limitation Of Liability.

The case involved a "drunken brawl which erupted among passengers who were enjoying a cruise on the Delaware River onboard the vessel Ben Franklin Yacht." Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that they were assaulted by other passengers on the vessel while the boat was docking, and at least one alleged that the assault continued in the parking lot near the dock. They alleged that the boats crew members caused their injuries by "providing inadequate security and overserving alcohol to passengers." Plaintiffs sued in state court, and Defendant responded by filing a "limitation action" in federal court. (A "limitation action" is a unique wrinkle in maritime law that allows the "owner of a vessel" to limit its liability to "an amount equal to the value of the owner's interest in the vessel and pending freight.") Both sides then moved for summary judgment. But, while these motions were pending, the district court, sua sponte, invited briefing on whether the court had jurisdiction. After briefing and oral argument, the district court found that maritime jurisdiction was lacking and, therefore, dismissed defendant's limitation action.

Defendant appealed. This is where, I think, it gets interesting, at least for someone who does not generally practice maritime law. (Although I did write about a different case not too long ago, which is actually cited in the Christopher Columbus case, so maybe I am developing a niche.) 

Continue reading “This Never Would Have Happened On The Nina, Pinta, Or Santa Maria.”

We got next! Injured during a pick-up game, no expert needed; injured during a league game, get an expert.

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

Soccer (pd)Continuing with a recent theme of people getting injured playing sports and then suing the people who allegedly injured them, we now have Greaves v. Inline Skating Club of America, LLC. In Greaves, plaintiff was the goalie on a soccer team. He was injured during a formal, league-sponsored game with referees (this will be important later on). The Appellate Division described the underlying events as follows:

[Plaintiff] was severely injured while playing soccer as goalie for "Kiss the Baby" team. At the time, plaintiff was in the process of picking up the ball inside the goalie  box.  He had the ball for approximate[ly]  [five] to [ten] seconds when he was tackled/kicked and/or pushed to the ground in a violent manner by .  .  .  a player on the  opposing soccer team. Plaintiff struck his head on the hard surface losing brief [sic] consciousness. At the same time and place, the game was being refereed by [the referee] who was working as an agent and/or employee of [defendant].

Plaintiff sued the player who made contact with him, the referee, and the facility that ran the league. Plaintiff never served the player or the referee with the summons and complaint, however, so they were dismissed and the lawsuit proceeded against the facility alone. Plaintiff alleged that the facility was "responsible for maintaining a safe facility and failed to supervise and provide security at the facility." Stated differently, plaintiff alleged that the referee's failure to officiate the game properly caused his injuries.

Plaintiff never produced an expert report during the discovery period. After receiving an adverse decision from an arbitrator during mandatory, pre-trial arbitration, plaintiff moved for trial de novo and served a liability expert report. Defendant objected, forcing plaintiff to move to reopen discovery so that he could amend his discovery responses to identify his expert and serve the expert report. The motion was denied.  Defendant then moved for summary judgment, which was also denied because the trial court held there were issues of fact regarding the role of the referee and whether defendant breached any duty it may have had to plaintiff.

Continue reading “We got next! Injured during a pick-up game, no expert needed; injured during a league game, get an expert.”

NJ Supreme Court: LLP Cannot Be Converted To General Partnership For Failing To Maintain Liability Insurance

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

NJ Supreme Court (pd)On June 23, 2016, the New Jersey Supreme Court released its decision in Mortgage Grader, Inc. v. Ward & Olivo, LLP, a case in which I had the privilege of representing the New Jersey State Bar Association as amicus curiae. (I previously wrote about the case here.) As discussed below, the Supreme Court agreed with our arguments. 

In Mortgage Grader, a former client sued the defendant law firm and each of its partners after the firm dissolved. While the firm had maintained professional liability insurance while it was actively practicing, it did not purchase a "tail" policy to cover claims that arose after it dissolved. The trial court held that this violated Rule 1:21-1C(a)(3), which requires attorneys practicing as an LLP to "obtain and maintain in good standing one or more policies of lawyers' professional liability insurance which shall insure the [LLP] against liability imposed upon it by law for damages resulting from any claim made against the [LLP] by its clients." Accordingly, the trial court held that the individual partners were not shielded from liability as they would normally be as members of an LLP and were instead vicariously liable for their partners' negligence. In other words, the trial court effectively converted the LLP to a general partnership because it failed to maintain liability insurance. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the trial court did not have the authority to strip the individual partners of their liability protections under either Rule 1:21-1C(a)(3) or the Uniform Partnership Act.

The NJSBA asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to affirm the Appellate Division's decision. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that: (1) the insurance requirements for LLPs did not extend to the period when a firm is "winding up" its business — i.e., when it is collecting receivables but no longer providing legal services; and (2) even if they did, an LLP could not be converted to a general partnership as a "sanction" for failing to maintain liability insurance. Justice Albin wrote a separate opinion, concurring with the judgment of the majority, but suggesting that the Court Rules be amended to provide that an LLP would lose its liability protection if it failed to meet the insurance requirements, and to require LLPs to purchase tail insurance for six years following their dissolution. 

The Supreme Court's opinion can be found here.

Appellate Division: Arbitration Agreement in Non-Profit’s Bylaws Enforceable

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

Contract(pd)
The enforceability of arbitration provisions is a hot topic in New Jersey right now. Several recent cases suggest that these provisions may be less readily enforceable than previously thought, or at least that courts are taking a closer look at them than they may have in the past. The author of an article in the NJ Law Journal even questioned whether New Jersey courts were "anti-arbitration." With this in mind, the Appellate Division's  unpublished opinion in Matahen v. Sehwail, in which it enforced an arbitration provision contained in the bylaws of a New Jersey mosque, is noteworthy.

In Matahen, plaintiffs and defendants were members of the general assembly in the mosque. The general assembly was comprised of all "active members" of the mosque, which was defined as "those who attend prayers regularly, participate 'actively' in mosque 'activities,' abide by the bylaws, pay dues, and practice Islam daily." The general assembly was the highest authority in the mosque, but the Board of Trustees, "which represent[ed] the general assembly," was the highest "policy-making authority" in the mosque. 

In the complaint, plaintiffs alleged that certain defendants used the mosque's credit cards for personal expenses, conspired to keep a former employee on the mosque's health insurance plan after he stopped working for the mosque, and used the mosque's funds to pay for one of defendant's children's school tuition. Rather than filing a responsive pleading, defendants moved to compel arbitration, under a provision in the mosque's bylaws, which provided:

The board shall create an Islamic Arbitration Committee of 3-5 members in case of disagreement among board members or general assembly members of matters related to the center, such committee shall consist of a Lawyer, an Imam, and Community Leaders. All disputes arising hereunder shall be resolved by arbitration by the aforementioned committee pursuant to policies and procedures established by such committee from time-to-time. All parties involved shall approve of the members of the Arbitration Committee. Decisions of the committee shall be binding on all parties and may be entered in a court of competent jurisdiction.

(emphasis added). The trial court denied the motion, holding that the claims alleging misuse of corporate funds "address those types of concerns that are standard in a corporation type dispute," and therefore "clearly belong in a court to be adjudicated." Defendants appealed.

The Appellate Division reversed, primarily because of the "utmost latitude" given to non-profits in the "regulation and management of intracorporate affairs." The Appellate Division noted that "a non-profit organization's private law is generally binding on those who wish to remain members," and "only the most abusive and obnoxious by-law provision could properly invite a court's intrusion into what is essentially a business thicket." The arbitration agreement in Matahen did not rise to this level.

Reading the arbitration provision in the bylaws as a whole, the Appellate Division had little difficulty holding that the Board and general assembly intended that all disputes pertaining to the mosque be handled through arbitration. Because the claims asserted in the complaint "concerned mosque affairs," the Appellate Division held that they fell within this provision notwithstanding that, as the trial court held, they may have also been justiciable in court.

Among other things, plaintiffs argued that the provision was unenforceable because it was not contained in a contract, but merely in the mosque's bylaws, to which, plaintiffs claimed, they were not parties. The Appellate Division disagreed, holding that, as a matter of law, "by-laws of a voluntary association become a part of the contract entered into by a member who joins the association."

The Appellate Division also rejected plaintiffs' argument that the arbitration provision was unenforceable because it failed to "advise those subject to [it] that they [ ] waived their right to maintain an action in court." While the Appellate Division acknowledged that the provision did not reference waiver, this shortcoming did not render it unenforceable. The Board and the general assembly shared the authority to amend the bylaws, but never saw fit to amend them to include any reference to waiver. Therefore, the Appellate Division held that it was "incongruous for plaintiffs to complain the arbitration clause [was] defective and unenforceable when they were part of the two intra-corporate bodies responsible for its contents." The Appellate Division further held:

Plaintiffs' position is far different from parties to the typical contract, where generally each party seeks to advance its own interests and not those of the other. There was no "adverse" party here who sought to induce plaintiffs to enter into a contract containing an arbitration clause that failed to contain the subject waiver, hoping to gain an advantage. Plaintiffs merely find themselves facing a bylaw they either composed or ratified by failing to amend its contents.

Accordingly, the arbitration provision was enforceable notwithstanding the lack of any reference to waiver of the right to sue in court.

Ultimately, the Appellate Division's holding in Matahen is noteworthy, not because it signals a shift in the recent scrutiny of contractual arbitration provisions in general, but because it suggests that courts may be more likely to enforce such provisions in specific situations involving the governance of non-profit organizations. 

When is an LLP not an LLP? NJ Supreme Court to Consider Whether an LLP Converts to a GP if it Fails to Maintain Malpractice Insurance

Scales (pd)
On Monday, the New Jersey Supreme Court will hear oral argument in a case – Mortgage Grader, Inc. v. Ward & Olivo, LLP — that involves insurance, court rules, and statutory interpretation, but still manages to be interesting. I have the privilege of representing the New Jersey State Bar Association as amicus curiae in the case and will be part of the oral argument. (Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, the New Jersey Supreme Court live streams all of its oral arguments. Click here on Monday at 1 pm to watch.) 

In Mortgage Grader, a former client sued the defendant law firm and each of its partners after the firm dissolved. While the firm had maintained professional liability insurance while it was actively practicing, it did not purchase a "tail" policy to cover claims that arose after it dissolved. The trial court held that this violated Rule 1:21-1C(a)(3), which requires attorneys practicing as an LLP to "obtain and maintain in good standing one or more policies of lawyers' professional liability insurance which shall insure the [LLP] against liability imposed upon it by law for damages resulting from any claim made against the [LLP] by its clients." Accordingly, the trial court held that the individual partners were not shielded from liability as they would normally be as members of an LLP and were instead vicariously liable for their partners' negligence. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the trial court did not have the authority to strip the individual partners of their liability protections under either Rule 1:21-1C(a)(3) or the Uniform Partnership Act.

The NJSBA has asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to affirm the Appellate Division's decision. It has further suggested that if the Supreme Court is inclined to change Rule 1:21-1C(a)(3) to require that attorneys practicing as an LLP obtain a "tail" insurance policy to cover claims that arise after they dissolve, that this change be made through the normal rule making process and not as part of a decision in Mortgage Grader.

[BONUS COVERAGE: I plan to stick around after the oral argument in Mortgage Grader to hear oral argument in Robertelli v. The New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics, a case I blogged about here and here. Robertelli involved an ethics  grievance filed against a defense lawyer who "friended" a plaintiff on Facebook.]

A Rare Narrowing Of The Consumer Fraud Act’s Scope: Medical Malpractice Insurance Not Covered

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

It is not every day that a New Jersey court limits the scope of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”), so when one does, it is worth writing about. Anyone who litigates in New Jersey knows about the CFA and, depending on whether you are on the plaintiff’s side or the defendant’s side, either loves it or hates it. (I am mostly on the defendant’s side, but occasionally find myself representing a plaintiff, so my relationship with the CFA is “complicated.”) Because it is remedial legislation, the CFA is liberally construed to afford the greatest protection to consumers. This philosophy has led courts to apply the CFA (and its treble damages and prevailing party’s attorney fees) to a seemingly ever growing, and very rarely contracting, variety of disputes. In fact, many years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court observed that: “The history of the Act is one of constant expansion of consumer protection.”

With this in mind, we turn to the Law Division’s published decision in Khan v. Conventus Inter-Insurance Exchange. That case was a putative class action in which plaintiff, a doctor, alleged that defendant violated the CFA in connection with the sale of medical malpractice insurance and the administration of the policy after it was purchased. Plaintiff purchased a policy from defendant and, as part of her initial membership, was required to make a one-time contribution, equal to the first year’s premium, to defendant’s surplus fund. (Defendant is not a traditional insurance carrier, but is instead a “non-profit physician member-owned risk sharing exchange.”) Plaintiff elected to make this contribution in installments over a ten-month period, with the understanding that if she cancelled her policy before the final payment was made, she would still be responsible for the full surplus fund contribution. Plaintiff eventually cancelled her policy before the ten-month period passed and defendant demanded that she immediately pay her entire surplus fund contribution rather than allowing her to pay it off in installments as originally agreed upon by the parties. Plaintiff sued alleging that this attempt to accelerate the surplus fund payment was a breach of contract and a violation of the CFA. She sought to bring her claims as a class action.

Before addressing whether plaintiff could sustain a class action and be appointed class representative, the court first had to decide whether the CFA applied to “transactions involving the purchase and sale of medical malpractice insurance.” Because the court held that it did not, it never had to reach the class certification issues.

 

 

Continue reading “A Rare Narrowing Of The Consumer Fraud Act’s Scope: Medical Malpractice Insurance Not Covered”

Enforcement Action Against Rating Agency Allowed To Proceed

        by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

In an interesting decision issued today, Judge Katz (Essex County) denied a motion to dismiss filed by the ratings agency Standard & Poor's ("S&P") in an enforcement action brought against S&P by the New Jersey Attorney General. In Hoffman v. McGraw-Hill Financial, Inc., the Attorney General alleged that S&P violated the Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") by misrepresenting to New Jersey consumers that S&P's analysis and rating of structured finance securities was independent and objective. The opinion contains decisions on both procedural personal jurisdiction issues and substantive CFA issues that all litigators should find interesting.

[Lawsuits against ratings agencies are nothing new. Several years ago, I wrote an article about these lawsuits and, at the time, the relative success the rating agencies had defending against them. (If you did not save your copy of the article, click here for another copy.) Historically, the rating agencies argued that their ratings were proetced under the First Amendment, but at least one court rejected this argument in the context of a motion to dismiss in a lawsuit that eventually settled.]

 

Continue reading “Enforcement Action Against Rating Agency Allowed To Proceed”