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.

 

 

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Free Speech In Condos and Co-Ops: Round III Goes To The Resident

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)       

It is not quite Ali-Frazier or even Gatti-Ward, but the New Jersey Supreme Court just delivered its third opinion in the past seven years regarding the free speech rights of residents in common interest communities (condos and co-ops). In Dublirer v. 2000 Linwood Avenue, Owners, Inc., the Court ruled that a resident who was a regular critic of the co-op's board of directors had the right to distribute leaflets under apartment doors throughout the building. (We previously wrote about the Appellate Division decision that the Supreme Court reviewed on appeal – look here.) The Court held that the co-op's "House Rule" purportedly banning all soliciting and distributing of written materials, including the resident's leaflets, was an unconstitutional abridgment of his free speech rights. In doing so, the Court clarified the standard that should generally be applied when evaluating similar issues — which arise frequently in common-interest communities — and described the types of restrictions that could be adopted without infringing on the free speech rights of residents.

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Another Lesson From A New Jersey Court On The UCC And Standing To Foreclose

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

The running battle between lenders and borrowers over standing to foreclose continues in the Garden State. A recent decision from the Appellate Division — Bank of New York v. Ukpe — is the latest in an ever-growing body of case law addressing this issue from seemingly every conceivable angle. 

The facts in Ukpe will be familiar to anyone who has followed the wave of residential foreclosures in recent years. Defendants applied for a mortgage from Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. (“CHL”). They claimed that they told the broker that they could not afford a monthly payment over $1,000 and were assured by the broker that the monthly payment would not exceed this amount. However, at the closing, they learned that the monthly payment would be almost $1,500 per month. They alleged that the broker told them not to worry because they could refinance the loan a few months after closing. Nonetheless, two years later, after several unsuccessful attempts to refinance the loan, Defendants defaulted. 

Defendants’ note was made "payable to lender," and the mortgage, after it was recorded, was held by Mortgage Electric Recording System ("MERS") as nominee for the lender. Shortly after being recorded, the mortgage was securitized along with other mortgages. As part of this process, several entities entered into a "Pooling and Servicing Agreement" ("PSA"). Under the PSA, CHL was identified as a "seller," CWABS, Inc. was identified as the "depositor" and "master servicer," and the Bank of New York ("BNY") was identified as the "trustee." Under the PSA, the CHL and the other “sellers” transferred the mortgages to CWABS, Inc., which then transferred them to BNY, which held the mortgages for the benefit of the investors in the newly-created security. The PSA also required the original mortgage notes to be endorsed in blank and delivered to BNY.

After Defendants defaulted, BNY filed a foreclosure complaint. In response, Defendants claimed, among other things, that BNY lacked standing to foreclose because it was not a holder in due course. The trial court rejected this claim and the Appellate Division affirmed. In doing so, the Appellate Division provided a crash course in what it means to be a holder in due course.

 

 

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More Courts Reject Eleventh-Hour Attempts To Avoid Foreclosure Based On An Alleged Lack Of Standing

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

 Two more Appellate Division panels have refused to allow defendant's in foreclosure lawsuits to raise standing as an eleventh-hour defense.  As we previously reported — Changing Tide in Forclosure Litigation? Courts Taking Closer Look When Defendants Assert Lack Of Standing At Last Minute — there is now a clear trend against allowing defendants to stay silent in the face of a foreclosure lawsuit only to appear at the last minute, usually on the eve of a sheriff's sale, and seek to vacate final judgment based on an alleged lack of standing to foreclose.  Two recent Appellate Division cases continue to bring this point home. 

In IndyMac Bank FSB v. DeCastro, a residential borrower moved to vacate final judgment and dismiss the complaint 15 months after it was entered, arguing that he was not served with the complaint.  The motion was denied.  Defendant filed a second motion to vacate, arguing, for the first time, that the bank lacked standing to foreclose because it was not assigned the mortgage until after the complaint was filed.  This motion was denied as untimely and defendant appealed.  In an opinion, dated March 13, 2013, the Appellate Division affirmed.  In its decision, among other things, the Appellate Division rejected defendant's standing argument, noting: "[W]e have now made clear that lack of standing is not a meritorious defense to a foreclosure complaint."  Moreover, the Appellate Division held that defendant's standing argument was meritless "particularly given defendant's unexcused, years-long delay in asserting that defense or any other claim."  In arriving at this decision, the Appellate Division relied on many of the cases discussed in our prior post. 

Similarly, in WellsFargo Bank, N.A. v. Lopez, a different Appellate Division panel rejected another residential home owner's last-minute attempt to raise standing as a defense to the foreclosure complaint.  The facts in that case were a bit more egregious because the borrower contributed to the four-year delay between the entry of default and the filing of his motion to vacate by filing numerous bankruptcy petitions and seeking a stay to attempt to short sell the property.  Nonetheless, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's denial of the motion to vacate holding, among other things, that the lack of standing, even if true, was not a meritorious defense to a foreclosure complaint, particularly in the post-judgment context.  Again, the Appellate Division relied primarily on the cases included in our prior post.

Changing Tide In Foreclosure Litigation? Courts Taking Closer Look When Defendants Assert Lack Of Standing At Last Minute

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

In a series of recent decisions, New Jersey courts appear to be taking a stance against defendants raising, as a last-minute defense, that a party lacks standing to foreclose.  This is good news for lenders and their assignees, who, prior to these decisions, faced the prospect of proceeding to final judgment of foreclosure, only to have a party appear at the last minute, allege a lack of standing to foreclose, and send the process back to square one. 

The changing body of case law began with the Appellate Division’s opinion in Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas v. Angeles, 428 N.J. Super. 315 (App. Div. 2013).  In that case, defendant failed to defend the action or assert a standing issue until two years after default judgment was entered and more than three years after the complaint was filed.  Id. at 316.  Interestingly, the Appellate Division acknowledged that defendant raised a valid concern about plaintiff’s standing to foreclose, but nonetheless refused to vacate final judgment.  In explaining its decision, the Appellate Division noted:

In foreclosure matters, equity must be applied to plaintiffs as well as defendants. Defendant did not raise the issue of standing until he had the advantage of many years of delay. Some delay stemmed from the New Jersey foreclosure system, other delay was afforded him through the equitable powers of the court, and additional delay resulted from plaintiff's attempt to amicably resolve the matter. Defendant at no time denied his responsibility for the debt incurred nor can he reasonably argue that [Plaintiff] is not the party legitimately in possession of the property. Rather, when all hope of further delay expired, after his home was sold and he was evicted, he made a last-ditch effort to relitigate the case. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining that defendant was not equitably entitled to vacate the judgment.

Id. at 320. 

 

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