Unenforceable Clause In Arbitration Agreement Does Not Void Agreement

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

Arbitration (pd)One of my children's preschool teachers was fond of saying, "you get what you get and you don't get upset." (Not to my little angel, of course, but to other children.) In Curran v. Curran, the Appellate Division basically applied this admonition to the parties to an arbitration agreement, holding that they got what they intended out of the agreement, therefore they could not argue, after the fact, that an unenforceable provision in the agreement voided the entire agreement.

In Curran, plaintiff filed for divorce from defendant. With the advice of counsel, the parties entered into a consent order to refer all issues incident to their divorce to arbitration under the New Jersey Arbitration Act. In the consent order, the parties acknowledged that any arbitration award that was entered could only be set aside or modified by a court under the limited grounds set forth in the Arbitration Act — e.g., the award was procured by fraud, corruption, or undue means, the court found evidence of "evident partiality" by the arbitrator, the arbitrator exceeded his or her powers, etc.  But the parties also included a handwritten provision, which provided: "The parties reserve their rights to appeal the arbitrator's award to the appellate division as if the matter was determined by the trial court." This is the provision that would cause all of the problems.

After the arbitrator entered a preliminary award, plaintiff requested reconsideration. The arbitrator then issued a comprehensive award setting forth his findings of fact and conclusions of law. Plaintiff filed a motion in the Law Division for an order modifying the award, citing eight alleged "mistakes of law" made by the arbitrator. Plaintiff also argued that the intent of the handwritten provision was not to allow for direct appeal to the Appellate Division, but was instead was evidence that the parties intended a more searching review of the award that what would normally be allowed under the Arbitration Act. The trial court agreed, holding that the paragraph itself was unenforceable because it purported to "create subject matter jurisdiction by agreement." The trial court noted that "[t]he authority of a court to hear and determine certain classes of cases rests solely with the Constitution and the Legislature." But the trial court agreed with plaintiff that the handwritten provision demonstrated the parties' intent to provide for "a little more review" than what would normally be allowed under the Arbitration Act. Therefore, the trial court "in essence act[ed] as the Appellate Division of the arbitrator." It performed a comprehensive review of the arbitrator's decision and affirmed the award. 

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Employer May Be Able To Enforce Arbitration Agreement That Employee Never Signed

Contract
In its recent Seriki v. Uniqlo New Jersey, LLC opinion, the Appellate Division faced the following question: "if an employee does not sign an arbitration agreement, can it still be enforced against him"? (Not quite as philosophical as the famous, "if tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" but more relevant to my daily life.) The Appellate Division's answer was a resounding "maybe."

In Seriki, plaintiff worked as a loss-prevention associate for defendant, a retail department store. A few months after he started the job, plaintiff attended a training session at defendant's human resources office. During the meeting, plaintiff and the other attendees received a revised copy of plaintiff's employee handbook. They also received a four-page agreement entitled, "Mutual Agreement to Arbitrate Claims" (the "Agreement"). As the name suggests, the Agreement was a broad agreement to arbitrate all claims between plaintiff and its employees. It also contained the following provision:

Should Employee not sign this Agreement, continuing Employee's employment for a period of [thirty] days after Employee's receipt of this Agreement constitutes mutual acceptance of the terms of the Agreement commencing upon completion of that [thirty]-day period.

Defendant claimed that it explained the Agreement to plaintiff and the other attendees at the meeting. Plaintiff disagreed, claiming that the Agreement was never discussed. Plaintiff did not sign the Agreement, but continued to work for defendant for four months after the meeting. 

After plaintiff was fired, he sued, alleging wrongful discharge. Defendant moved to compel arbitration. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that plaintiff was not bound by the Agreement because he did not sign it. Defendant appealed.

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You Think Your Neighbors Are Bad . . .

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

Anyone who thinks they have bad neighbors better pay attention to this story.  A man with the too-good-to-be-true name of Titus Terranova put up a sign warning potential purchasers of his neighbor's house about what they were in for if they moved in next door.  According to the story by the local Colorado TV station, "Neighbor's Warning Sign Scares Off Home Buyers" (h/t: Marketplace),  the sign, which is hand painted on the side of Titus Terranova's RV reads: "Warning: 3 Rottweilers, Loud Parties, Loud Music, Loud Cars, Anti-Horse, Fireworks."  Naturally the current owners of the home objected to their neighbors brutal honesty, but Titus Terranova appears undeterred.  As you can see in the attached clip, he told one reporter: "As far as I know, that thing right up there on that pole," he said pointing to the large American flag fluttering above his home, "gives me right to do whatever I want to do unless I hurt somebody else."

UPDATE:  I just noticed my favorite part of the sign – the line on the bottom inviting people to "call for more info."  Can you imagine the conversation?  "Yes, I have a question about the fireworks…"

You Got A Better Idea?!? Government Opens Suggestion Box For Ideas On How To Rent Out Foreclosed Properties

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

  The New York Times is reporting that the government is soliciting ideas for turning its glut of vacant, foreclosed houses into rental units that could be managed by private parties or sold in bulk  ("U.S. Seeks Ideas On Renting Out Foreclosed Property").  The goal of the program would be to "stabilize neighborhoods where large supplies of empty, foreclosed properties have hurt property values" and "clear the nation’s balance sheet of real estate holdings that, because they have been difficult to sell individually, have hung over the housing market and stunted sales of existing homes and new construction."  The request for ideas comes from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Treasury Department, and you can click here to submit your ideas.

As the article notes, the percentage of homes owned by the government that are currently in foreclosure is somewhat staggering:

Of the 248,000 homes owned by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the F.H.A. at the end of June, 70,000 were listed for sale, said Corinne Russell, a housing finance agency spokeswoman. The remainder were not yet on the market or the agencies had already received an offer from a prospective buyer.

But it is possible that hundreds of thousands of more homes that are now in the foreclosure process could come into the possession of the federal government in the next few years, housing experts say.

The government is now looking for a few good men ideas for how to deal with this crisis.  Among those already proposed are "rent-to-own programs, in which previous homeowners or current renters could lease properties as a path to ownership, and ways in which the properties can be used to support affordable housing."

If you have any thoughts, be sure to let us know when you let the government know.