Neighbor’s Tree Limbs Hanging Over Your Yard? Just Rent A Chainsaw, Climb A Ladder, And Cut Them. What Could Go Wrong?

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

Chainsaw (pd)Turns out, a lot could go wrong. But, if it does, the neighbor whose tree limbs inspired you to climb the ladder, chainsaw in hand, probably won't be responsible, at least according to the holding in Corbisiero v. Schlatter.

In Corbisiero, plaintiff was a tenant in mixed-use property that was adjacent to defendant's property. In Spring 2013, some twigs and branches fell from tress located on defendant's property onto the property where plaintiff lived. Plaintiff asked defendant to cut down some of the branches that extended onto the property, which defendant did. A few months later, plaintiff asked defendant to cut down some more branches. Defendant told plaintiff that she would do it when she had time.

Apparently unwilling to wait for defendant to get to it, plaintiff spoke to her landlord about cutting the branches herself. Her landlord told her that "if [the tree limbs] grew over his property . . . we [can] cut them down." The landlord also told plaintiff that he would reimburse her for the cost of a chainsaw to be used to cut down the limbs. It is unclear if the landlord was suggesting that plaintiff both buy the chainsaw and cut the limbs down (as opposed to buying the chainsaw and having someone else do it), but plaintiff nonetheless chose to take matters into her own hands and do both. 

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Homeowner not liable for sweetgum spiky seed pod slip and fall

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

Sweetgum treeIn the past, I have written about whether property owners can be liable for slip-and-fall accidents caused by ice and snow on their sidewalks. (Click here, here, and here for examples.) This is the first time I will address the related topic of whether property owners can be liable for accidents caused by "spiky seed pods" that fall from sweetgum trees on their property. Turns out that the source of the slippery sidewalk does not change the law too much for residential property owners.

In Neilson v. Dunn, plaintiff was injured when she slipped on spiky seed pods that fell from a sweetgum tree on defendant's property onto an adjacent sidewalk. The tree had been on defendant's property since she and her husband bought it, and plaintiff knew that there were seed pods on the sidewalk when she began her walk. Defendant also "employ[ed] a lawn maintenance contractor whose services include fall and spring clean ups." The most recent clean up occurred two month's prior to plaintiff's accident.

After plaintiff sued, defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that she could not be liable for plaintiff's injuries because she had neither created nor exacerbated a dangerous condition on the sidewalk. She argued that the "seed pod accumulation" was a natural condition over which she had no control, and that she acted reasonably in retaining a lawn maintenance service to "periodically clean up any debris, [including the seed pods,] on her lawn and sidewalk." Plaintiff countered that defendant had a duty to ensure that her property was spiky seed pod free and that her failure to do so created a hazardous condition.

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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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When Was The Last Time You Sent A Letter Via Telegram?

Telegram (PD)
I have never sent a telegram and would not know how to send one even if I wanted to. But, if you are so inclined, there is a somewhat quirky provision of New Jersey real estate law that would allow you to dust off your telegram machine and send one. This provision was the subject of a recent Appellate Division decision, Conley v. Guerrero, that attracted significant attention from the real estate community and may end up before the New Jersey Supreme Court. 

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 by delivering it personally." The attorney must also notify the other attorney (or the party itself if they are not represented), but the law does not specify the manner in which this notice must be delivered. (Stay tuned for more on this later!)

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 therefore sent a disapproval of plaintiffs' contract to both plaintiffs' counsel and the broker (who was a duel agent represented both plaintiffs and seller). He sent the notice of disapproval via email, which plaintiffs' counsel and the agent acknowledged receiving within the attorney review period. Nonetheless, plaintiffs argued that the notice was ineffective because it was not sent in the proscribed manner — by certified mail, telegram, or hand delivery.

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Condo Association Not Immune From Liability For Slip-And-Fall On Its Private Sidewalk

Shovel (PD)The latest chapter in the "can I be sued if someone slips and falls on the sidewalk in front of my house after it snows" saga has been written. In Qian v. Toll Brothers Inc., the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a condominium association was responsible for clearing snow and ice from the private sidewalks that it controlled, and therefore could be liable for injuries caused by its failure to do so. 

The general law on this issue is well-settled. Historically, no property owners had a duty to maintain the sidewalks on property that abutted public streets, but this changed in the early 1980’s, when the New Jersey Supreme Court imposed such a duty on commercial property owners, but not residential property owners. Therefore, commercial property owners are required to remove snow and/or ice from the sidewalks abutting their property, but residential property owners are not.

In practice, however, the law has proven easier to state than apply. What about situations involving property that is both residential and commercial (click here for more on that)? Or, situations where the injured party is a tenant who is injured on the landlord's property (click here for more on that)? Or, situations where the property is in foreclosure (click here for more on that)? Or, the issue in Qian, situations where the property is a condominium or common-interest community?

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Fishing Hole Fight Fails To State Claim For Harassment And Discrimination

FishingA morning out fishing on the lake ended up in a lawsuit between two residents of a gated community. In Chrzanowski v. Harriz, plaintiff and defendant were both members of the Smoke Rise Club, which the court described as "essentially a homeowners association" for residents of a gated community known as Smoke Rise. One of the privileges of membership in the Smoke Rise Club is access to a lake and an adjacent beach and dock. One morning, plaintiff and his nine-year-old son were attempting to fish from the dock at the same time as Harriz when "a dispute occurred between [them] over fishing locations." Harriz told plaintiff that he did not want plaintiff fishing near him, "directed coarse and offensive language" at plaintiff and his son, and told plaintiff that plaintiff did not belong in the Smoke Rise Club.  Then, after Harris overhead plaintiff talking to his son in Polish, Harriz allegedly called plaintiff "an ignorant foreigner who could not speak English." As the dispute escalated, Plaintiff saw Harriz get on his phone and heard Harriz request that plaintiff be removed from the facilities. Feeling threatened, plaintiff called Smoke Rise security and the police. When the police arrived, they spoke to both parties and sent them both on their ways without filing any charges.

Plaintiff later sued Harriz and Smoke Rise, alleging (1) that both defendants discriminated against him by depriving him of his right to use a place of public accommodation and (2) that Harriz harassed him. Both defendants moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted both motions. The Appellate Division did not indicate the basis for the trial court's decision on the harassment claim, but it noted that the trial court dismissed the discrimination claim because the Smoke Rise Club and its amenities were private, and thus not places of public accommodation. Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division affirmed, albeit for slightly different reasons.

 

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Just In Time For Summer, A New Decision On When You Are Required To Clear Snow From Your Property

In the recent past, I have written several posts about when property owners can be liable for accidents caused by their failure to shovel snow from the sidewalks abutting their property. The basic rules are well settled – residential property owners generally don't have a duty to shovel but commercial property owners do. Therefore, my posts focused on the more unique (and hopefully, interesting) cases. For example, one post discussed whether a property was residential or commercial, and therefore whether the property owner would be required to shovel or not, when the owner lived in one unit of the multifamily building and rented out the other units. Another post discussed whether a lender who obtained final judgment of foreclosure on a commercial property, but that had not yet taken title to the property through a sheriff's sale, was required to shovel the sidewalks around the building.

Now there is another case that is somewhat different than the traditional snowy sidewalk slip and fall. In Holmes v. INCAA-Carroll Street Houses Corp, plaintiff was a tenant in a property owned by defendants. She sued after she slipped, while on the way to her car, on "an accumulation of snow" approximately three feet from the doorway to her apartment. (The area where she fell was actually not a sidewalk, but was instead a "lawn or grassy area," but this  distinction was not relevant to the court's decision.) A snowstorm has been raging since the night before. The snow had slowed, and perhaps even stopped, by the morning of the accident, but the storm had nonetheless dropped more than 15 inches of snow on the area. The conditions in the area were so severe that, when plaintiff's son called an ambulance to take her to the hospital, the ambulance company refused because of poor road conditions. The roads were not clear until the following day, at which point plaintiff drover herself to her doctor's office to be examined.

Plaintiff alleged that defendant had a duty to clear the snow from the property. Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no duty to do so in the middle of a storm. The court agreed with defendant.

 

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