Words Matter: Language In Retainer Agreement Bars Recovery Of Fees Incurred In Fee Arbitration Proceeding

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

Words (pd)One of my favorite quotes from a judicial decision comes from the New Jersey Supreme Court in Atlantic Northern Airlines v. Schwimmer: "Litigation proceeding from the poverty of language is constant." I have never understood this to be a knock on the drafter. Rather, I understood it to mean that no matter how carefully you choose your words you can never make a contract, agreement, or other document litigation-proof. You see examples of this nearly every day in the daily decisions, including in the Appellate Division's recent decision in The Law Offices of Bruce E. Baldinger, LLC v. Rosen.

Baldinger involved a dispute between a law firm and its former client over attorney's fees. Defendant retained plaintiff to represent him in connection with a dispute with a contractor over work performed at defendant's home. Plaintiff and defendant entered into a retainer agreement that included an initial flat fee of $1,200 followed by hourly billing. The retainer agreement also dictated that interest at the rate of 1% per month would be charged on any unpaid balances after 30 days. The retainer agreement also contained the following provision, which is most important to our story: "If collection and enforcement efforts are required, you agree to pay counsel fees along with costs of suit." This would become important later on.

After about a month, defendant "became dissatisfied with plaintiff's representation and terminated plaintiff's services." Defendant had already paid the $1,200 flat fee, but plaintiff demanded that he also pay an addition $4,308 for work performed by plaintiff up to that point. Defendant refused to pay.

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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.

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

Is A Locked, Fenced-In Parking Lot A “Structure”? It is in New Jersey.

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

I was in law school during the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky drama. When the pundits seized on Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony about what the "meaning of 'is' is," I recall one of my professors saying that lawyers make distinctions like that every day. In practice, I have learned that this is true. At depositions and in court, lawyers often argue over the meaning of certain words that most people would think are fairly uncontroversial. Sometimes these arguments are more for the sake of argument than anything else, but often they are crucial to the issues in the case, like in the recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision in State v. Olivero.

In Olivero, defendant was convicted of third-degree burglary for stealing metal printing rollers used in printing presses from a fenced-in lot that was adjacent to a warehouse. Defendant and his brother cut the chain and padlock that secured the fence around the lot before driving in and taking the rollers. Unfortunately for them, a security guard noticed that the chain and padlock had been cut and called the police, who arrested defendant and his brother as they attempted to drive out of the facility.

Under New Jersey law, "A person is guilty of burglary if, with purpose to commit an offense therein or thereon he . . . enters a structure." A "structure" is defined as "any building, room, ship, vessel, car, vehicle or airplane, and also means any place adapted . . . for carrying on business." At trial, defense counsel argued that defendant could not be found guilty of burglary because the lot was not a "structure." The trial court rejected this argument, holding that the fenced-in area was "a prohibited space not open to the public, as well as a place for carrying on . .  business." The Appellate Division affirmed, noting that the lot was secured from the public.

Continue reading “Is A Locked, Fenced-In Parking Lot A “Structure”? It is in New Jersey.”

Today at SCOTUS – [Insert Bad Fish Pun Here]

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) 

 In an interesting case this morning at the US Supreme Court, the Justices will be asked to determine whether a fish is a “tangible object.” No. Really. That is the issue in Yates v. United States.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal, makes it a crime to “destroy, mutilate, conceal, or cover up any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to obstruct a federal investigation. It is unlikely that Congress had fish in mind when it passed the Act, but this is nonetheless the federal law that was used to convict John Yates — captain of the Miss Katie, a commercial fishing boat out of Cortex, Florida — for throwing 72 red grouper that were allegedly below the legal limit back into the ocean.  

 

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“Swimmers Only Between Flags” (Or The Problem With “Plain Meaning”)

by: Peter J. Gallagher

 

Here is a link to one of my articles that was recently published on Law360.com.  The original title was "'Swimmers Only Between Flags' Or The Problem With 'Plain Meaning'" but the editors shortened it by removing the part about the swmmers. The sign that inspired the article (if "inspired" is not too obnoxious) is at the top of this post, and here is the opening paragraph of the article:

I was at the beach recently and passed a sign that read “Swimmers Only Between Flags.” Being a lawyer, I could not simply nod knowingly at the sign and keep walking. Instead, I thought: “well, that is ambiguous.” Did it mean that swimmers were only allowed between the flags (and not outside them) or that only swimmers were allowed between the flags (and not, for example, surfers or boogie boarders)? I mentioned it to my wife, who told me to make sure I put sunscreen on the kids. But, the sign stuck with me that day, and again when I read the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Abramski v. United States (No. 12-1493), a decision that involved competing interpretations of the “plain meaning” of a statute regulating the purchase of guns.

I hope you enjoy the article.

When Can Foreclosing Lenders Be Accused Of Acting In Bad Faith?

 by:    Peter J. Gallagher

In a recent decision, the Chancery Division denied a lender’s motion to strike a borrower’s contesting answer in a foreclosure lawsuit, holding that the borrower had adequately pled a claim that the lender acted in bad faith.  While this decision is unique based on the facts of the underlying dispute, it does, by contrast, serve as a reminder that lenders generally cannot be held to have acted in bad faith when they simply attempt to enforce the terms of loan documents as written. 

In Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Schultz, plaintiff obtained a mortgage from World Savings Bank (which later changed its name to Wachovia Mortgage, FSM, which was later acquired by and merged into Wells Fargo) under a “Pick-a-Payment” mortgage program.  Several years later, this program became the subject of a class action lawsuit, the settlement of which provided that Wells Fargo both pay class members, including defendant Schultz, a small sum and also make loan modifications available to them.  It is the second of these requirements that ended up getting Wells Fargo in trouble.  Defendant presented evidence to the court that led Judge Doyne to conclude that she was “getting the run around” from Wells Fargo, including by being told that she failed to submit documents that she certified that she had submitted, and when Wells Fargo eventually confirmed that she had submitted the documents, telling her that the modification program was no longer available.  Judge Doyne observed that defendant may not have a right to be approved for a specific modification, but that once Wells Fargo made one available to her, it was obligated to “act in good faith as to the provision of the modification.”  To be clear, Judge Doyne did not rule that Wells Fargo had acted with bad faith; instead, he simply ruled that defendant had pled enough in connection with her claims related to the modification that her answer could not be stricken. 

While this case presents a situation where a lender is alleged to have acted in bad faith after agreeing to entertain an application for a loan modification, the law in New Jersey is well settled that a lender cannot generally be deemed to have acted in bad faith when it seeks to enforce the terms of a note or mortgage as written.  Stated differently, lenders cannot be barred from enforcing loan and mortgage documents merely because they seek to enforce their express contractual rights.  Indeed, “a creditor's duty to act in good faith does not extend to foregoing its right to accelerate upon default or otherwise compromising its contractual rights in order to aid its debtor.” Glenfed Financial Corp. v. Penick Corp.   For instance, in Creeger Brick & Building Supply, Inc. v. Mid-State Bank & Trust Co., — a decision cited by the Appellate Division with approval in Glenfed — a Pennsylvania appeals court held:

. . . a lending institution does not violate a separate duty of good faith by adhering to its agreement with the borrower or by enforcing its legal and contractual rights as a creditor. The duty of good faith imposed upon contracting parties does not compel a lender to surrender rights which it has been given by statute or by the terms of its contract. Similarly, it cannot be said that a lender has violated a duty of good faith merely because it has negotiated terms of a loan which are favorable to itself. As such, a lender generally is not liable for harm caused to a borrower by refusing to advance additional funds, release collateral, or assist in obtaining additional loans from third persons. A lending institution also is not required to delay attempts to recover from a guarantor after the principal debtor has defaulted.

In other words, if the defendant in Schultz was accusing Wells Fargo of bad faith simply because the lender was seeking to enforce its rights under the plain language of the relevant note and mortgage, the result would likely have been different.