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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If You Cancel Your Wedding Reception Can You Get Your Money Back From The Venue? (Or, When Is A Liquidated Damage Clause Enforceable?)

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

Wedding reception (pd)In the past, I have written about engagements gone wrong, including a case involving a failed (alleged) engagement and the return of a (purported) engagement ring that the recipient initially claimed to have lost, but later (apparently) found, and marriages gone wrong, including a case asking whether a marriage can be annulled because of a former wife's equitable fraud, but never a marriage reception gone wrong. With the Appellate Division's recent decision in Corona v. Stryker Golf, LLC, I am finally able to fill this gap in my failed relationship scholarship. On a more routine note, Corona also provides a helpful primer on the enforceability of liquidated damages clauses in contracts.

In Corona, plaintiff entered into a contract with defendant to hold her wedding reception at defendant's catering hall. Defendant agreed to provide the venue, food, and beverages for a contract price of approximately $12,012.80. The contract required an initial, non-refundable deposit of $2,500. Plaintiff made this payment and two subsequent payments of $5,166.35 and $1,725.35, for a total of $9,391.70. The contract contained the following provision regarding cancellation:

Cancellation under any circumstances is not acceptable and, in addition to forfeiting all deposits, the Patron will remain responsible for paying the entire balance of the contract price (excluding service charge) for the Event even if the Event does not occur.

Unfortunately, six months before the reception was to be held, plaintiff notified defendant that she was cancelling the wedding. Relying on the cancellation provision in the contract, defendant refused to return any of the money Plaintiff had paid under the contract. Plaintiff sued. Both parties moved for summary judgment. After trying to settle the case, the trial court granted defendant's motion and dismissed the complaint. The trial court held that plaintiff "twice breached the contract," although the decision does not explain how. On the issue of damages, defendant argued that the liquidated damages clause was "grossly disproportionate to [any] actual damages sustained by defendant and thus unenforceable as a penalty." The trial court rejected this argument, holding that the terms of the contract were "clear and unambiguous," therefore the court was required to enforce those terms as written.

Plaintiff appealed and the  Appellate Division reversed.

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Party Cannot Lose Its Right To Jury Trial For Violating Procedural Rules

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

Jury (pd)It is not often that a case that starts in the Special Civil Part — New Jersey's small-claims court — ends up before the New Jersey Supreme Court. But this is exactly what happened in Williams v. American Auto Logistics. It could not have been cost effective for the plaintiff to see this case through two separate bench trials, two separate appeals to the Appellate Division, and finally an appeal to the Supreme Court. But the issue in the case was so important that, notwithstanding the costs, the effort was likely worthwhile.

In Williams, plaintiff had his car shipped from Alaska to New Jersey by defendant. After he picked up the car, he discovered water damage in the trunk. Plaintiff sued in the Special Civil Part after efforts to amicably resolve the dispute failed. Plaintiff did not demand a jury trial in his complaint, but defendant did in its answer. At the pretrial conference, the trial court referred the parties to mediation, which was unsuccessful. Upon returning from mediation, defendant waived its jury demand. Plaintiff objected, but the trial court granted defendant's request. In support of its decision, the trial court noted that plaintiff had violated Rule 4:25-7 by failing to make the requisite pretrial submissions. (Among other things, Rule 4:25-7 requires parties to submit proposed voir dire questions, jury instructions, and jury verdict forms.) The trial court held that it could deny plaintiff's request for a jury trial as a sanction for this failure. Therefore, the case proceeded to a bench trial, where the trial court found no merit to plaintiff's claims.

Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division reversed and remanded. It held that a jury demand can only be withdrawn by consent, even when only one party demanded a jury trial and that party seeks to withdraw the demand. It further explained that "a trial judge may impose sanctions, including striking the jury demand, on a party that fails to submit the requisite pretrial information," but that the trial court in Williams erred by "allowing a single party to unilaterally waive the jury demand."

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If You Ever Wondered What “Accompany” Means, Justice Scalia Has Your Answer

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

  The two or three of you Those of you who regularly read this blog or are familiar with some of the posts and articles I have written know that I am a fan of Justice Scalia. Not necessarily his judicial philosophy, but his written opinions – both for the court and in dissent – which are almost always entertaining and compelling even if you disagree with his conclusions. This morning, the Supreme Court released its opinion in Whitfield v. United States, where Justice Scalia, writing for a unanimous court demonstrated again why he is one of the Supreme Court’s most engaging authors.

Whitfield was a tragic case that reads like it was ripped from a law school exam question. Whitfield was fleeing police after a botched robbery when he entered Mary Parnell’s home through an unlocked door. “Once inside, he encountered a terrified Parnell and guided her from the hallway to a computer room (which Whitfield estimates was between four and nine feet away . . . ). There, Parnell suffered a fatal heart attack. Whitfield fled, and was found hiding nearby.”

Whitfield was found guilty of a number of federal offenses, including one that makes it a crime for a suspect who is “avoiding or attempting to avoid apprehension” to “force[] any person to accompany him without the consent of such person.” Whitfield appealed his conviction, arguing that this statute requires “substantial” movement and his movement with Parnell did not qualify. The Fourth Circuit disagreed and Whitfield appealed to the Supreme Court. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit’s decision and upheld Whitfield’s conviction.

 

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Handicapped Access: What Is A Condo Association’s Obligation To Its Members?

"Now more than ever, community associations, especially those managing age-restricted developments, must be familiar with the various statutory controls concerning handicapped accessibility. In a time when many are looking to cut costs, the last thing an association needs is to be assessed civil penalties after being found in violation of an anti-discrimination statute. Rather, an association must collectively understand its obligations, options and appropriate responses when crafting a response to a complaint of deficient handicapped access."

So begins an article, entitled  Handicapped Access: What is an Association’s Obligation to its Members?, written by Steven P. Gouin in Community Trends magazine.  Click on the link for more details on this important issue.