Words Matter! “Acknowledgement” Of Company Policy Is Not “Agreement” To Be Bound By It

“This case exemplifies an inadequate way for an employer to go about extracting its employees’ agreement to submit to binding arbitration for future claims and thereby waive their rights to sue the employer and seek a jury trial.”

If you are an employer, and a court begins its decision this way, it is probably not going to be a good day for you. Such was the case for the defendant in Skuse v. Pfizer, Inc.

I know I have been writing a lot lately about arbitration agreements, and Skuse deals with this same topic. But it is different from other recent cases, and in an interesting way. In most of the cases I have written about, the question was whether a plaintiff’s claims fell within the scope of an arbitration agreement and, if so, whether the agreement adequately informed plaintiff that he or she waived the right to have those claims heard in court, by a jury. In Skuse, plaintiff did not argue that the text of defendant’s mandatory arbitration policy insufficiently explained the policy itself or the rights being waived. Instead, plaintiff challenged the the manner in which the policy was delivered to employees.

In Skuse, defendant sought to “extract[ ] its employee’s agreement” to arbitrate (as the Appellate Division characterized it) through what the company called a “training module.” Employees were sent an email with a link to a presentation that described the company’s mandatory arbitration policy. They were “assigned” the task of “reviewing” the presentation, which was comprised of four slides. The first slide explained that agreeing to the policy was a requirement of continued employment with the company, and indicated that employees would be required to “acknowledge” receipt of the policy in a later slide. The second slide contained a link to a “Resources” tab that contained the company’s five-page, single-spaced arbitration policy, which could be reviewed and printed by employees. The third slide contained a paragraph stating that the employee understood that agreeing to the policy was a requirement of employment and requiring the employee to click on a “rectangular box with rounded corners,” next to which was printed: “CLICK HERE to acknowledge.” This slide also indicated that even if employees did not click the acknowledgement, they would be deemed to have acknowledged the policy if they remained with the company for 60 days after receiving the presentation. The fourth and final slide thanked the employees for “reviewing” the arbitration policy.

Continue reading “Words Matter! “Acknowledgement” Of Company Policy Is Not “Agreement” To Be Bound By It”

Arbitration Provision Bounced Again, Even After Kindred Nursing Decision.

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

Arbitration (pd)As readers of this blog know, arbitration provisions in consumer contracts are difficult to enforce in New Jersey. (Click here or here for a refresher.) There was some belief that the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. P'ship v. Clark might change this, but it does not appear, at least not yet, that it has. In a recent case, Defina v. Go Ahead and Jump 1, LLC d/b/a Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park, the Appellate Division was asked to revisit, in light of Kindred Nursing, its prior decision refusing to enforce an arbitration provision in a contract between a trampoline park and one of its customers. The Appellate Division did so, but affirmed its prior decision, holding that Kindred Nursing did not require New Jersey courts to change the manner in which they approach arbitration provisions.

I wrote about Defina in its first go-around with the Appellate Division — Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park's Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable. The underlying facts of the case are unfortunate. A child fractured his ankle while playing "Ultimate Dodgeball" at a trampoline park. Before entering the facility, the child's father signed a document entitled, "Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk." The document contained an arbitration provision, which provided: 

If there are any disputes regarding this agreement, I on behalf of myself and/or my child(ren) hereby waive any right I and/or my child(ren) may have to a trial and agree that such dispute shall be brought within one year of the date of this Agreement and will be determined by binding arbitration before one arbitrator to be administered by JAMS pursuant to its Comprehensive Arbitration Rules and Procedures. I further agree that the arbitration will take place solely in the state of Texas and that the substantive law of Texas shall apply.

Notwithstanding this provision, the child's parents sued the trampoline park in state court, alleging tort claims for simple negligence and gross negligence, and statutory claims for alleged violations of the Consumer Fraud Act and the Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act. 

Continue reading “Arbitration Provision Bounced Again, Even After Kindred Nursing Decision.”

NJ Court: Agreement To Arbitrate “Any Claims” Does Not Include Agreement To Arbitrate Statutory Claims

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

Arbitration (pd)In recent months I have written several times about the difficulty of enforcing arbitration agreements in New Jersey (e.g., here, here, and here). While the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Kindred Nursing Centers v. Clark has some people confident that this will change, it hasn't yet. Instead, New Jersey courts continue to issue opinions demonstrating the uphill battle faced by parties trying to enforce contractual arbitration provisions. A recent unpublished Law Division opinion, Griffoul v. NRG Residential Solar Solutions, LLC, is the latest example.

In Griffoul, plaintiffs entered into a lease for a residential solar system. The lease contained a "broad form arbitration clause" in which plaintiffs agreed to arbitrate "any" claim "arising out of" or "in connection with" the lease, and agreed that, by entering into the lease, plaintiffs were waiving their right to a jury trial. The lease also contained a class action waiver provision, declaring that "each party may bring claims against the other only in its individual capacity and not as a plaintiff or a class member in any purported class or representative proceeding."

Nonetheless, just over three years after entering into the lease, plaintiffs filed a putative class action in state court. The complaint asserted the now-common one-two punch of claims under the Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") and the Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act ("TCCWNA"). The CFA claims were based on alleged misrepresentations made by defendants in connection with the marketing of the solar energy system, and the TCCWNA claims were based on six provisions of the lease that plaintiffs claimed violated clearly established rights under New Jersey law. 

Continue reading “NJ Court: Agreement To Arbitrate “Any Claims” Does Not Include Agreement To Arbitrate Statutory Claims”

Final Chapter In The Case Of The Missing Double Eagle Coins

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

Double eagle (pd)
One of the more interesting cases I have written about is Langbord v. U.S. Dept. of Treasury, which I described in a June 2015 post as follows:

It's not every day that you find a case that starts with Depression-era monetary policy, ends with a relatively obscure federal statute, and in between tells the tale of the alleged theft of a coin considered to be "the most valuable ounce of gold in the world." Did I mention that the case also involves both Presidents Roosevelt, King Farouk of Egypt and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks? A case recently decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Langbord v. U.S. Dept. of Treasury, has all of this and more.

Langbord involved the 1933 Double Eagle gold coin. It is a $20 gold piece that was designed by famed artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens after he was commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt to help beautify American coinage. Almost a half million Double Eagles were minted, but none were ever officially released into circulation. Shortly after they were minted, newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, seeking to stem a run on the banks, issued Executive Order 6102, which made it illegal to "hoard" large amounts of gold. Accordingly, the U.S. Mint was ordered to stop issuing gold coins and to melt down any gold coins in its possession, including the Double Eagle. As part of this process, two Double Eagles were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for posterity, but the rest were supposed to have been melted down.

As you might have guessed, not all of the remaining coins were melted down. According to the government, approximately 20 of them ended up in the hands of a coin dealer who worked with a corrupt cashier at the US Mint to smuggle them out before they could be melted down. Over the years, it was alleged, he sold several of these coins. But, after his death, his family found 10 of them in his safety deposit box and offered to return them to the government. They requested the same terms as the government had agreed to several years earlier with a different individual who came into possession of another one of the coins. The government originally seized that coin after luring the dealer into a sting conducted at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, but later, after the dealer sued, agreed to sell the coin at auction and split the proceeds with him. At auction, it sold for almost $7.6 million, more than twice the world record for any coin sold at auction at the time. Plaintiffs in Langbord were looking for the same arrangement for their coins. The government agreed in principle but asked to authenticate the coins first. Plaintiffs agreed and sent the coins to the government for authentication. However, after authenticating them, the government refused to return them, arguing that they were stolen and were rightfully the property of the U.S. government. 

Continue reading “Final Chapter In The Case Of The Missing Double Eagle Coins”

Legal Fees Incurred Defending Against Counterclaim Recoverable Under New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act

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

FireplacePerhaps no three letters strike fear in the heart of New Jersey defense attorneys more than C-F-A. It is the common abbreviation for the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, a consumer protection statute that, among other things, allows successful plaintiffs to recover their attorney's fees. Until recently, however, it was not clear whether the fees incurred in defense of a counterclaim raised in response to a CFA lawsuit, as opposed to fees incurred in prosecuting the affirmative CFA claim, were recoverable. In Garmeaux v. DNV Concepts, Inc., a case of first impression, the Appellate Division held that they are, provided that the counterclaim is "inextricably caught up with" the CFA claim.

Plaintiffs in Garmeaux visited a store named The Bright Acre (operated by defendant, DNV Concepts Inc t/a The Bright Acre) for the purpose of replacing their gas fireplace which had been damaged in a storm. The store manager agreed to sell them a new fireplace and help them file an insurance claim for the costs associated with the purchase and installation. During the visit, Plaintiffs met defendant, James Risa, who the manager introduced as "[plaintiffs'] installer Jim." What plaintiffs did not know at the time, however, was that Risa owned and operated an independent fireplace installation company — defendant, Professional Fireplace Services — and that Bright Acre had a practice of referring installation work to its own employees who, like Risa, owned installation service companies. In other words, Risa would be installing the fireplace in his capacity as the owner of Professional Fireplace Services, not as an employee of Bright Acre.

Shortly after their visit to the store, plaintiffs received a proposal from Risa for the installation. They accepted and made the first installment payment. Unfortunately, not long after he began the installation, plaintiffs became dissatisfied with Risa's work habits — they alleged that he "kept an unpredictable schedule" — and the quality of his workmanship. Around the same time, they also learned that he was performing the installation in his capacity as owner of Professional Fireplace Services, not Bright Acre. After several calls to Bright Acre to attempt to resolve their issues were ignored, plaintiffs sued. 

Continue reading “Legal Fees Incurred Defending Against Counterclaim Recoverable Under New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act”

On a warm summer’s evenin’, on a train bound for nowhere . . . is a dispute over insuring a stranger’s life

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

Gambling

I know it is a little obvious, but I couldn't write a post about gambling without using lyrics from "The Gambler." Fortunately, the case this post discusses — Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada v. U.S. Bank National Association — is anything but obvious. Sun Life involved gambling on another person's life but not in a Deer Hunter, Russian roulette kind of way. In Sun Life, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit addressed the enforceability of an insurance policy that insured a stranger's life.

In Sun Life, Judge Posner began his decision by discussing the common law principle that "forbids a person to own an insurance policy that insures someone else's life unless the policy owner has an insurable interest in that life." A wife can have an insurable interest in her husband's or children's lives, a creditor can have an insurable interest in a debtor's life, but "you cannot own an insurance policy on the life of a stranger who you happen to know is in poor health and likely to die soon." The reason is that, by doing so, you are essentially gambling on another person's life, and gambling contracts are generally unenforceable as a matter of public policy. 

Continue reading “On a warm summer’s evenin’, on a train bound for nowhere . . . is a dispute over insuring a stranger’s life”

Rova Farms – From Born to Run to Bad Faith

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

SpringsteenI am in the middle of reading “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen’s memoir. I am about one-third of the way through and so far, so good. I just finished reading about “the only full-scale truly scary bar brawl [of Bruce and the band’s] club lives.” It happened in Rova Farms, a “Russian social club on the outskirts of town.” (In Springsteen’s life, like in his songs, the important things always seem to happen on the outskirts of town.) The brawl started right before the band broke into “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” and ended with the police being called and several people being taken out on stretchers.

Like nearly all New Jersey lawyers, I know Rova Farms as a thing – a “Rova Farms letter” or a “Rova Farms claim” – not a place. It was interesting to read a story about the place behind the thing. For the uninitiated, Rova Farms Resort v. Investors Ins. Co. of America, was a case involving a visitor to Rova Farms who was injured, not in a bar brawl, but from diving into a shallow portion of a lake on the resort. He sustained serious spinal cord injuries and was paralyzed. The resort’s insurance carrier refused to tender the full, $50,000 policy limit to settle the claim. The case went to trial and the jury returned a $225,000 verdict. The resort then sued its carrier for the full amount of the judgment, alleging that it acted in bad faith by not settling the claim within the policy limits.

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed, holding that an insurer’s bad-faith failure to settle within policy limits renders it liable for the full amount of the judgment, including any portion in excess of the policy limits. As a result of this decision, defendants in New Jersey will usually send a “Rova Farms letter” to their carriers when a plaintiff offers to settle a case within policy limits. The letter puts the carrier on notice that, if it does not settle within the policy limits, the insured will look to the carrier to pay the entire judgment. Of course, the obligation to do so only arises when the carrier acts in bad faith, but, needless to say, this letter tends to change the dynamic between insured and insurer.   

Back to Bruce . . . As far as New Jersey courts are concerned, Rova Farms is far more popular than Springsteen. The case has been cited more than 3,800 times in New Jersey alone. A search of all state and federal court opinions for Bruce Springsteen yields 87 hits, and only 5 of those are from New Jersey courts. Local hero indeed.