Dog (Bite) Days Of Summer, Part II: Home Inspector Bitten While Inspecting Home Can’t Sue Realtor

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

Beware of the dog (pd)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.

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NJ Supreme Court Narrowly Defines “Aggrieved Consumer.” End Of The Road For One Type Of “No Injury” Class Action?

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

Contract(pd)
I have written a number of times about New Jersey's Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). (Here, here, and here for example.) This statute, which was largely ignored after it was enacted in 1981, became increasingly popular in recent years as part of so-called no injury class actions. (So-called mostly by defense counsel, not plaintiff's counsel.) Its popularity may now have come to an end, however, because the New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued its opinion in the highly-anticipated case, Spade v. Select Comfort Corp., which answered two questions certified to it by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, one of which appears to hamper, at the very least, the ability of plaintiffs to sue for alleged violations of the act.

By way of brief background, the TCCWNA was enacted to prevent deceptive practices in consumer contracts by prohibiting the use of illegal terms or warranties. It provides:

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.

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 containing a provision that violated a legal right of the consumer or a responsibility of the seller; and (4) that it was an "aggrieved consumer." Any party found to have violated the TCCWNA is liable for a civil penalty of not less than $100, actual damages, or both, and reasonable attorneys' fees and court costs.

The questions certified to the Supreme Court in Spade arose out of two cases that had been consolidated by the district court. Each involved plaintiffs who ordered furniture pursuant to contracts that violated certain regulations promulgated by New Jersey's Division of Consumer Affairs. The regulations require, among other things, that furniture sellers deliver furniture to customers by or before the promised delivery date or provide written notice that they will not be able to do so. Sellers must also provide notice to the purchaser that if the delivery is late, the consumer has the option of canceling the order and receiving a full refund, or agreeing to accept delivery at a specified later date. The regulations also prohibit sellers from including certain language in their contracts, such as "all sales final," "no cancellations," and "no refunds." In Spade, plaintiffs alleged that the contracts they entered into with defendants did not contain language required by these regulations, contained language prohibited by these regulations, or both. Notably, however, plaintiffs received their furniture deliveries on time.  

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You Can’t Be Compelled To Arbitrate In A Nonexistent Forum

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

Arbitration (pd)This one may seem obvious, but, in MacDonald v. Cashcall, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a contractual arbitration provision that calls for arbitration in an "illusory forum" is not enforceable. So, if you were thinking about trying to compel arbitration in Wakanda or before the Jedi Council, better think twice.

In MacDonald, plaintiff entered into a loan agreement with a entity known as Western Sky in connection with a $5,000 loan. The loan agreement stated that it was "subject solely to the jurisdiction of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe," and "governed by the . . . laws of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe." It also contained an arbitration provision requiring that any disputes arising out of the agreement be "conducted by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Nation by an authorized representative in accordance with its consumer dispute rules and the terms of [the agreement]." But the agreement also provided that either party, after demanding arbitration, could select an arbitrator from the American Arbitration Association ("AAA") or Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services ("JAMS") to administer the arbitration, and, if it did, "the arbitration [would] be governed by the chosen arbitration organization's rules and procedures" to the extent that they did not contradict the "law of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe." The agreement also contained a severability clause, providing that, if any provision of the agreement was deemed invalid, the remaining provisions would remain in effect.

Although plaintiff originally borrowed $5,000, "[h]e was charged a $75 origination fee and a 116.73% annual interest rate over the seven-year term of the loan, resulting in a $35,994.28 finance charge." After paying approximately $15,493 on the loan, which included $38.50 in principal, $15,256.65 in interest, and $197.85 in fees, plaintiff filed a putative class action lawsuit against defendants, asserting federal RICO claims and state law claims for usury and consumer fraud. Defendants moved to compel arbitration. The district court denied the motion, holding that the loan agreement's "express disavowal of federal and state law rendered the arbitration agreement invalid as an unenforceable prospective waiver of statutory rights." Defendants appealed. 

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Borrower Cannot Abandon Germane Defense To Foreclosure And Later Sue For Damages Based On That Defense

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

Foreclosure (PD)
It is always helpful when a court lets you know up front what its decision is all about. This was the case in Adelman v. BSI Financial Services, Inc., where the Appellate Division began its decision as follows: "A defendant in a foreclosure case may not fail to diligently pursue a germane defense and then pursue a civil case against the lender alleging fraud by foreclosure." Definitely not burying the lede (or is it burying the "lead"?).

In Adelman, plaintiff was the executrix of the estate of her deceased husband, Norman. Before they were married, Norman entered into a loan with his lender that was secured by a mortgage on his home. Three years later, the loan went into default, and six months after that, the lender filed a foreclosure complaint. Norman offered no defense to the complaint, and default was entered. Three months after that, he began discussing the possibility of a loan modification with the lender. However, Norman's chances for a successful modification ended when he could not make the first payment under the proposed modification and when a title search revealed five other liens on the property. 

Months later, final judgment of foreclosure was entered. Norman did not object to the entry of final judgment. One year after that, the property was sold at sheriff's sale, and nine months after the sale, the lender filed a motion to remove Norman from the property. Only then, for the first time, did Norman argue, in a motion to stay his removal from the property, that the foreclosure was improper because the loan modification cured the default. The court denied this motion. Plaintiff appealed but then withdrew the appeal. Ultimately, shortly after Norman passed, and more than five years after the loan went into default, plaintiff vacated the property. 

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On Cloaking Devices And Usury: Lender Can Be Sued If It Uses Corporate Shell To Cloak A Personal Loan As A Business Loan

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

Star Trek (pd)Cloaking devices are common in sci-fi movies like Star Trek and Star Wars. They are used to render an object, usually a spaceship, invisible to nearly all forms of detection. Although scientists are apparently working to make real-life cloaking devices, at this point they exist only in the movies and, apparently, in New Jersey courts, at least according to the Appellate Division in Amelio v. Gordon.

In Amelio, plaintiff owed an apartment building in Hoboken. He approached defendants about obtaining a loan to finish renovations on three units in the building, along with the common areas. Plaintiff claimed that defendants instructed him to create a corporate entity to obtain the loan. Plaintiff did as he was instructed, and formed a limited liability company, which obtained the loan from defendants. Plaintiff, who was identified as the managing member of the limited liability company, signed the loan documents on behalf of the company.

Plaintiff later sued, arguing that the fees and interest payments under the loan exceeded the amounts allowable under New Jersey's usury laws. He also claimed that defendants fraudulently convinced him to create a limited liability company and have that entity obtain the loan, just so they could charge him usurious fees and interest. Plaintiff sued in his individual capacity, not on behalf of the limited liability company. On the day of trial, defendants argued that the complaint had to be dismissed because plaintiff lacked standing to sue since the company was the borrower, not plaintiff. With little explanation, the trial court granted the motion and dismissed the complaint. Plaintiff appealed. 

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NJ Supreme Court: If Borrower Abides By Terms Of Settlement Agreement, Lender Must Modify Mortgage

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

Mortgage (pd)Lawsuits arising out of foreclosures and mortgage modifications are common. (Even more common than lawsuits about gyms or health clubs if you can believe that.) Nearly every day there is a decision from the Appellate Division arising out of a residential foreclosure. Most of these fall into the same category — borrower defaults and loses home through foreclosure then challenges lender's standing to foreclose after the fact — but some are more interesting. That was the case with GMAC Mortgage, LLC v. Willoughby, a decision released yesterday by the New Jersey Supreme Court involving a mortgage modification agreement entered into to settle a foreclosure lawsuit.

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post about Arias v. Elite Mortgage, a lawsuit over the alleged breach of a mortgage modification agreements. In that case, borrowers entered into a mortgage modification agreement with their lenders that included a Trial Period Plan ("TPP"). As the name suggests, a TPP requires borrowers to make reduced monthly payments in a timely manner for a trial period, after which, if they make the payments, the lender agrees to modify their mortgage. In Arias, the Appellate Division held, as a matter of first impression, that if a borrower makes the trial payments under the TPP, the lender must modify the mortgage, and if it doesn't, the borrower can sue for breach. However, the holding was purely academic because the borrower in that case failed to make one of the trial payments in a timely manner so it could not sue. 

In GMAC Mortgage, the New Jersey Supreme Court faced a similar situation with a much less academic result. 

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Winning Bidder At Sheriff’s Sale Entitled To Recoup Some, But Not All, Of His Deposit After Sale Is Vacated

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

Auction (pd)A recent decision from the Appellate Division drives home (1) the duty of sellers at sheriff's sales to announce all material information about the property being sold at the sale, (2) the duty of bidders at sheriff's sales to perform independent due diligence about the property notwithstanding that announcement, and (3) the flexibility of Chancery Division courts to fashion remedies when both fail to fully satisfy their obligations.

In Wells Fargo Bank Bank, N.A. v. Torney, plaintiff foreclosed on property owned by defendant, obtained final judgment against defendant, and proceeded to sheriff's sale. In advance of the sheriff's sale, plaintiff submitted its "sheriff's sale package" to the Camden County Sheriff. Included in the package was a short form property description (required under N.J.S.A. 2A:61-1), which, among other things, disclosed that the property was subject to a $94,000 first mortgage. The existence of this prior mortgage was also disclosed in the conditions of sale attached to the short form property description, and in the Affidavit of Consideration submitted by plaintiff in connection with the foreclosure. Finally, the short form property description also contained the following disclaimer: "all interested parties are to conduct and rely upon their own independent investigation to ascertain whether or not any outstanding interest remain[s] of record and/or have priority over the lien being foreclosed and, if so[,] the correct amount due thereon."

Edward Shuman, who would eventually be the winning bidder at the sheriff' sale,  learned about the sale through the sheriff's website, which did not mention the prior mortgage. Also, at the sheriff's sale, plaintiff did not announce, as part of its "general announcements," that the property was subject to a prior mortgage. And, on the "printed condition of sale, the box next to 'subject to a first mortgage' was not checked." Shuman claims that he did not know about the prior mortgage when he placed his winning bid on the property, and did not learn about it until later that day when he inquired about the existence of any tax liens on the property. Once he learned about the mortgage, he contacted plaintiff and requested that the sale be vacated and his deposit returned. When plaintiff refused, Shuman filed a motion seeking the same relief. 

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