Alleged Omission In Consumer Contract Does Not Violate New Jersey Consumer Protection Statute

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

Washer dryer (pd)New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) has long been a favorite of  plaintiff's attorneys, but there is another consumer protection statute that is rapidly gaining on the CFA in popularity — the Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA) (or, as it is sometimes awkwardly pronounced, "ta-KWA-na"). Although it has been around for thirty years, case law interpreting the TCCWNA is still in its infancy because the act has only recently become a common claim in putative consumer class actions. In a new, unpublished decision, Matijakovich v. P.C. Richard & Son, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, addressed one unsettled aspect of the still developing body of case law surrounding the TCCWNA.

First, a brief primer on the TCCWNA, which provides, in part:

No seller . . . shall in the course of his business offer to any consumer or prospective consumer or enter into any written  consumer contract  .  .  .  or display any written . . . notice or sign . . . which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller . . . as established by State or Federal law at the time the offer is made . . . or the . . . notice or sign is given or displayed.

Its purpose is to prevent deceptive practices in consumer contracts by prohibiting the use of illegal terms or warranties. To state a claim under the TCCWNA, a plaintiff must prove four elements: (1) that it is a consumer; (2) that defendant is a seller; (3) that the seller offered a consumer contract; and (4) that the consumer contract contained a provision that violated a legal right of the consumer or a responsibility of the seller. Any party found to have violated the TCCWNA is liable for a civil penalty of not less than $100, actual damages, or both, in addition to reasonable attorneys' fees and court costs.

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“Here’s the mail it never fails . . . :” Judge Posner Criticizes “Rhetorical Envelopes” In Which Judicial Opinions Are “Delivered To The Reader”

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

Judge (pd)[Apologies for the Blue's Clues reference in the title to this post.]

In his concurring opinion in a recent Seventh Circuit decision — United States v. Dessart — Judge Posner agreed with the majority's conclusions, but wrote separately to express his "reservations about some of the verbal formulas in the majority opinion." He did not "criticize the majority for reciting them" because, as he noted, they are "common, orthodox, even canonical." But he did criticize the "verbal formulas" themselves as being "inessential and in some respects erroneous" and thus, he urged, "ripe for rexamination."

What were the "verbal formulas" that Judge Posner was so keen to criticize? Just some of the legal standards that we see recited in opinions every day. For example, the commonly-used "abuse of discretion" standard, of which Judge Posner appears not to be a big fan. In his concurring opinion, Judge Posner noted that the majority defined this standard as including "among other missteps, 'material errors of law.'" This apparently did not jibe with Judge Posner's understanding of discretion and its abuse, as he explained:

Of course, material errors of law are potentially very serious, but what has that to do with discretion or its abuse? Common as the term "abuse of discretion" is in opinions dealing with appeals from district court decisions, I find it opaque. If the appellate court is persuaded that the trial court erred in a way that makes the trial court's decision unacceptable, it reverses. What has discretion to do with it? And "abuse" seems altogether too strong a term to describe what may be no more than a disagreement between equally competent judges – the trial judge and the appellate judges – that the appellate judges happen to be empowered to resolve as they see fit.

Similarly, he challenged the majority's similarly well-settled statement that an appellate court, when reviewing a trial court's decision to issue a search warrant, must afford that decision "great deference." (Among the issues in the Dessart case was whether a search warrant was supported by probable cause.) Judge Posner acknowledged that the standard comes from a Supreme Court decisions holding that "[a] magistrate's determination of probable cause should be paid great deference by reviewing courts," but questioned it nonetheless. First, he questioned why "great" deference should be afforded to such decisions since "warrants [are] usually issued by the most junior judicial officers – and often police or prosecutors can shop among magistrates for one who is certain or almost certain to respond affirmatively to a request to issue a warrant." Second, Judge Posner noted that "[n]othing in the [Fourth] amendment requires warrants – ever," therefore it was not fair, in Judge Posner's opinion, to conclude, as is often concluded, that the Constitution expresses a preference for searches conducted pursuant to warrants or to afford great deference to a trial court's decision to issue one.

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Are Exceptions Starting To Swallow The “American Rule” In New Jersey?

Constitution (pd)The answer to that question would appear to be: it depends who you ask. In a pair of decisions released on April 26, 2016, Innes v. Marzano-Lesnevich and In Re Estate of Folcher, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the “American Rule” — the idea that each party to a lawsuit is responsible for its own attorney’s fees — and specifically whether to narrow or expand certain common-law exceptions to that rule. At the center of the two decisions was Justice LaVecchia, who authored the majority opinion in Folcher and the dissent in Innes. These decisions leave little doubt that this is not the last we have heard from the Supreme Court on the parameters of the American Rule.

First, a brief history of the American Rule in New Jersey. In 1948, New Jersey adopted a new Constitution and re-organized its court system. As part of this re-organization, and as it relates to the awarding of prevailing party attorney’s fees, New Jersey could have adopted either the English Rule, which allows for the liberal awarding of such fees, or the American Rule, which does not. New Jersey chose the latter. This decision is currently embodied in Rule 4:42-9, which only allows for eight exceptions to the general rule.

Over the years, however, New Jersey courts have created common law exceptions to the American Rule. These cases have followed two, independent tracks, one arising in the context of the attorney-client relationship and one arising in the context of estate administration.

 

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Jury Instructions Deemed Ambiguous “and/or” Erroneous “and/or” a “Mongrel Expression”

Question mark (pd)
When I used to teach Legal Research and Writing, one of the phrases I encouraged my students to avoid was "and/or." Like a lot of legalese, I think lawyers believe that using "and/or" leads to greater clarity in their writing when in fact the opposite is true. I suspect that, like much of what I taught them, my students avoided "and/or" in the writing they submitted to me and then quickly went back to using it as soon as they got out of my class. They may have thought that my opposition to "and/or" — like my opposition to "any and all," "heretofore," and any number of other phrases — was personal preference not generally accepted advice. If they did, however, they would have been wrong, and the Appellate Division has now confirmed as much.

In State v. Gonzalez, the Appellate Division reversed defendant's conviction and ordered a new trial because the trial court's repeated use of "and/or" in its jury charges rendered the instructions "hopelessly ambiguous and erroneous in important respects." In that case, defendant was convicted of, among other things, robbery and aggravated assault. (The emphasis on "and" will become clear later.)  He was accused of conspiring with two other individuals to rob and then assault another individual. As might be expected, the prosecution and defense presented different versions of the underlying events to the jury. The problem for the Appellate Division was not the evidence that each side presented, but rather the repeated use of "and/or" by the trial judge when he instructed the jury on how to evaluate that evidence.

The Appellate Division began by observing that "[t]he imprecision of the phrase 'and/or' and criticism for its use [in New Jersey] and in other jurisdictions has been well documented." New Jersey's highest court previously described it as an expression that "has never been accredited in this state as good pleading or proper to form part of a judgment record." Courts in other states were less kind, calling it: a "verbal monstrosity, neither word nor phrase;" "an inexcusable barbarism" that was "sired by indolence;" a "mongrel expression" that was "an equivocal connective, being neither positively conjunctive nor positively disjunctive;" and an "abominable invention." The Appellate Division further observed that "[w]henever found in the decisions of [New Jersey] courts, 'and/or' has been recognized as creating ambiguity."

 

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