In New Jersey, You Can Now Disapprove A Real Estate Contract By Email Or Fax (But Not Telegram)

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

Telepgraph (pd)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.

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New Jersey Supreme Court To Clarify Whether TCCWNA Claim Can Be Based On An Omission

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

Contract(pd)In a recent post, I wrote about New Jersey's Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). It has become exceedingly popular with the plaintiffs' bar and now appears frequently (usually along with another favorite, the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act) in putative consumer class action complaints. The New Jersey Supreme Court is now going to weigh in on one of the unsettled portions of this newly-popular law — whether a TCCWNA claim can be based on an alleged omission in a contract as opposed to an affirmative misstatement.

The case discussed in my prior post — Matijakovich P.C. Richard & Son — involved the purchase and delivery of a washing machine. Although the washing machine was delivered on time, plaintiff sued because the contract with the seller did not contain language disclosing defendant's obligation in case of delay. TCCWNA provides that "[n]o seller . . . shall in the course of his business offer to any consumer or prospective consumer or enter into any written consumer contract  .  .  .  which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller." Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that a TCCWNA claim cannot be based on an omission. It argued that TCCWNA prohibits a seller from entering into a consumer contract that includes an illegal term, therefore it applies only to affirmative statements, not omissions of allegedly required language. The district court noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court had not yet ruled on this issue, but relied on federal case law to grant the motion and dismiss the complaint.

A similar scenario played out in another recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey,Truglio v. Planet Fitness, Inc. In that case, plaintiff alleged that the contract she entered into with her health club violated TCCWNA by failing to (1) conspicuously set forth her total payment obligations and (2) set forth that a bond had been filed with the Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. The district court dismissed this portion of the complaint. Like the Matijakovich court, the district court noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court had not yet ruled on the issue, but it relied on the same federal law as the Matijakovich court for the proposition that an alleged omission cannot serve as the basis for a TCCWNA claim.

Both of these courts looked for guidance from the New Jersey Supreme Court and found none. This may soon change. The New Jersey Supreme Court just granted certification in two cases — Bozzi v. OSI Restaurant Partners, LLC and Dugan v. TGI Friday’s, Inc. — that should resolve the question of whether a TCCWNA claim can be based on an alleged omission. I wrote about Dugan here, but both cases involved restaurants not including drink prices on their menus, and both appeals question whether class certification is appropriate under TCCWNA in light of this omission. (The Dugan case also has a second question about whether class certification is appropriate where a restaurant charges different prices for drinks depending on where they are purchased (i.e., at the bar vs. at a table).) It will be many months before we get an answer from the Supreme Court in these cases, but this case will be closely watched by both plaintiffs' and defense counsel so stay tuned.

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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Borrower Allowed To Sue Lender For Breaching Mortgage Modificaton Agreement

 

Loan application (pd)

In a decision that all lenders should read carefully, the Appellate Division recently reiterated that a borrower may have a private cause of action against a lender if the lender breaches the terms of a mortgage modification agreement under the Home Affordable Modification Program ("HAMP").

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Appellate Division's decision in Arias v. Elite Mortgage. (In case you forgot, click here to review the post.) In that case, the Appellate Division faced an issue of first impression involving mortgage modifications under HAMP. Specifically, the Appellate Division was faced with the question of whether a borrower could sue a lender if the lender breached the terms of a Trial Period Plan (“TPP”) agreement. As I noted in that post, a TPP is essentially the first step in obtaining a mortgage modification under HAMP. In a TPP agreement, the borrower agrees, among other things, to make reduced monthly payments in a timely manner during a relatively short period. As the name suggests, this is a trial period during which the lender can determine whether the borrower is able to make payments similar to those the borrower would be required to make under a modified mortgage. If the borrower satisfies the conditions of the TPP, including making the monthly payments, then the lender agrees to modify the mortgage. In Arias, the Appellate Division held that a lender could face a lawsuit from a borrower if it failed to hold up its end of this bargain. In that case, however, the borrower had not made the required payments in a timely manner during the trial period — i.e., the borrower failed to hold up its end of the bargain — so the lender did not have to offer the borrower a modified mortgage.

Now, the Appellate Division has returned to the same issue in Aiello v. OceanFirst Bank. In Aiello, plaintiffs entered into a TPP agreement with defendant that required them to provide certain financial documentation, submit to credit counseling if necessary, and make monthly payments of $1,386.75 during the trial period.The TPP agreement stated that it was not a loan modification and that if plaintiffs failed to comply with its terms, no modification would be offered. It also stated that the monthly payment during the trial period was an estimate of the payment that would be required under a modified mortgage, and the actual amount under a modified mortgage might be greater.

Unlike Arias, plaintiffs in Aiello complied with the terms of the TPP agreement. Nonetheless, Fannie Mae initially rejected plaintiffs' application for a modified mortgage because their loan was originated prior to January 1, 2009, a fact, the Appellate Division observed, that defendant was aware of when it first entered into the TTP agreement with plaintiffs. Defendant eventually did offer plaintiffs a modification, but it included monthly payments almost $400 higher than the payments made under the TPP agreement. Plaintiffs rejected the offer and sued defendant for breaching the TPP agreement. Both sides moved for summary judgment. The trial court denied plaintiffs' motion and granted defendant's motion.

 

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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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