Federal Judge Strikes Down “Flying Spaghetti Monster” (Or At Least A Prisoner’s Claims About His Ability To Worship The “Flying Spaghetti Monster”)

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

Spaghetti monster(pd)When appointments are made to the U.S. Supreme Court there is often much talk about the potential justice’s “paper trail” — the articles, briefs, or, if the candidate is already a judge, opinions he or she has written. If Judge John M. Gerrard of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska is ever fortunate enough to be appointed to the Supreme Court, I hope that someone questions him about his recent opinion in Cavanaugh v. Bartelt. The decision does not provide much insight into his “judicial temperament” or his position on any hot button social issues that might come before the Supreme Court. It is just a well written and — not to  sound too geeky — enormously entertaining opinion to read.

Cavanaugh was a lawsuit filed by a prisoner in a Nebraska prison who claimed to be a “‘Pastafarian,’ i.e., a believer in the divine ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ who practices the religion of ‘FSMism’.” Plaintiff sued prison officials, claiming they were not accommodating his religious requests. Judge Gerrard concluded that FSMism was not a religion under the law, but was instead “a parody, intended to advance an argument about science, the evolution of life, and the place of religion in public education.” While he acknowledged that these were “important issues and FSMism contains a serious argument,” he held that FSMism was “not entitled to protection as a religion.”

Before addressing the legal issues presented by the complaint, Judge Gerrard provided a brief and entertaining history of FSMism. Because it developed as a response to “intelligent design,” Judge Gerrard traced the debate over teaching evolution in public schools from the adoption of state laws banning the teaching of evolution, to the Supreme Court’s rejection of those laws, to the adoption of state laws requiring that schools teach both evolution and “creation science,” to the Supreme Court’s rejection of “creation science” under the Establishment Clause, to the rise of “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution. Proponents of “intelligent design” claim that the “Earth’s ecosystem displays complexity suggesting intelligent design by a ‘master intellect.” They try to avoid the Establish Clause issues that brought down “creation science” by not expressly identifying the “master intellect” as a deity.

 

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A Rare Narrowing Of The Consumer Fraud Act’s Scope: Medical Malpractice Insurance Not Covered

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

It is not every day that a New Jersey court limits the scope of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”), so when one does, it is worth writing about. Anyone who litigates in New Jersey knows about the CFA and, depending on whether you are on the plaintiff’s side or the defendant’s side, either loves it or hates it. (I am mostly on the defendant’s side, but occasionally find myself representing a plaintiff, so my relationship with the CFA is “complicated.”) Because it is remedial legislation, the CFA is liberally construed to afford the greatest protection to consumers. This philosophy has led courts to apply the CFA (and its treble damages and prevailing party’s attorney fees) to a seemingly ever growing, and very rarely contracting, variety of disputes. In fact, many years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court observed that: “The history of the Act is one of constant expansion of consumer protection.”

With this in mind, we turn to the Law Division’s published decision in Khan v. Conventus Inter-Insurance Exchange. That case was a putative class action in which plaintiff, a doctor, alleged that defendant violated the CFA in connection with the sale of medical malpractice insurance and the administration of the policy after it was purchased. Plaintiff purchased a policy from defendant and, as part of her initial membership, was required to make a one-time contribution, equal to the first year’s premium, to defendant’s surplus fund. (Defendant is not a traditional insurance carrier, but is instead a “non-profit physician member-owned risk sharing exchange.”) Plaintiff elected to make this contribution in installments over a ten-month period, with the understanding that if she cancelled her policy before the final payment was made, she would still be responsible for the full surplus fund contribution. Plaintiff eventually cancelled her policy before the ten-month period passed and defendant demanded that she immediately pay her entire surplus fund contribution rather than allowing her to pay it off in installments as originally agreed upon by the parties. Plaintiff sued alleging that this attempt to accelerate the surplus fund payment was a breach of contract and a violation of the CFA. She sought to bring her claims as a class action.

Before addressing whether plaintiff could sustain a class action and be appointed class representative, the court first had to decide whether the CFA applied to “transactions involving the purchase and sale of medical malpractice insurance.” Because the court held that it did not, it never had to reach the class certification issues.

 

 

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Enforcement Action Against Rating Agency Allowed To Proceed

        by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

In an interesting decision issued today, Judge Katz (Essex County) denied a motion to dismiss filed by the ratings agency Standard & Poor's ("S&P") in an enforcement action brought against S&P by the New Jersey Attorney General. In Hoffman v. McGraw-Hill Financial, Inc., the Attorney General alleged that S&P violated the Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") by misrepresenting to New Jersey consumers that S&P's analysis and rating of structured finance securities was independent and objective. The opinion contains decisions on both procedural personal jurisdiction issues and substantive CFA issues that all litigators should find interesting.

[Lawsuits against ratings agencies are nothing new. Several years ago, I wrote an article about these lawsuits and, at the time, the relative success the rating agencies had defending against them. (If you did not save your copy of the article, click here for another copy.) Historically, the rating agencies argued that their ratings were proetced under the First Amendment, but at least one court rejected this argument in the context of a motion to dismiss in a lawsuit that eventually settled.]

 

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New Jersey Supreme Court Refuses To Hear Challenge To Waiver Rule

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

The New Jersey Supreme Court has denied a request by a group of challengers to the so-called Waiver Rule (N.J.A.C. 7:1B-1.1, et seq.) — which allows the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (”DEP”) to waive certain environmental regulations on a case-by-case basis — to review an Appellate Division decision upholding the rule.  On behalf of amicus New Jersey Business and Industry Association, Porzio helped to defend the Waiver Rule before the Appellate Division.     

As we previously reported here, the Waiver Rule is not a blanket waiver of all regulations. Instead, a waiver will only be available when one of four criteria are met: (1) a public emergency has been formally declared; (2) conflicting rules between Federal and State agencies or between State agencies are adversely impacting a project or preventing an activity from proceeding; (3) a net environmental benefit would be achieved; and/or (4) undue hardship is being imposed by the rule requirements. N.J.A.C. 7:1B-2.1.  Moreover, the Waiver Rule identifies 13 rules and requirements that cannot be waived under any circumstances.

A group of Appellants challenged the Waiver Rule on several grounds, but the Appellate Division rejected the challenge and held that the Waiver Rule was a proper exercise of the DEP's rule-making authority.  The New Jersey Supreme Court has now refused to hear the case, which leaves intact the Appellate Division's decision. 

Appellate Division Endorses “Waiver Rule:” DEP Allowed To Waive Regulations In Limited Circumstances

  by: Peter J. Gallagher

On March 21, 2013, the Appellate Division rejected a challenge to the so-called Waiver Rule (N.J.A.C. 7:1B-1.1, et seq.), which allows the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (”DEP”) to waive certain environmental regulations on a case-by-case basis. On behalf of amicus New Jersey Business and Industry Association, Porzio had argued that the Waiver Rule represents a common sense and measured approach to regulation. In its decision, the Appellate Division appears to have agreed.

The history of the Waiver Rule is not long. On January 20, 2010, Governor Christie issued Executive Order No. 2, which sought to better leverage New Jersey’s “enormously valuable assets” by, among other things, “establishing ‘Common Sense Principles’ for State rules and regulations that will give this State the opportunity to energize and encourage a competitive economy to benefit businesses and ordinary citizens.” One of these “Common Sense Principles” required State agencies to “[a]dopt rules for ‘waivers’ which recognize that rules can be conflicting or unduly burdensome,” and further required these agencies to “adopt regulations that allow for waivers from the strict compliance with agency regulations,” provided that “such waivers shall not be inconsistent with the core missions of the agency.”

Although it did not identify Executive Order No. 2 as the source of its authority to do so, shortly after Governor Christie issued the Order, the DEP began developing rules and regulations designed to address the concerns regarding the impact of excessive regulation on New Jersey’s economy. The result was the Waiver Rule, which was only adopted after the DEP solicited public comments to the proposed Waiver Rule through an open public comment period, during which DEP received comments from more than 500 interested parties, and during a public hearing.

Notwithstanding its name, the Waiver Rule is not a blanket waiver of all regulations. Instead, a waiver will only be available when one of four criteria are met: (1) a public emergency has been formally declared; (2) conflicting rules between Federal and State agencies or between State agencies are adversely impacting a project or preventing an activity from proceeding; (3) a net environmental benefit would be achieved; and/or (4) undue hardship is being imposed by the rule requirements. N.J.A.C. 7:1B-2.1.  Moreover, the Waiver Rule identifies 13 rules and requirements that cannot be waived under any circumstances.

A group of Appellants, led by the American Littoral Society Association of New Jersey challenged the Waiver Rule on several grounds.  Today, the Appellate Division rejected that challenge.  First, the court held that the Waiver Rule was a proper exercise of the DEP's rule-making authority.  Specifically, the court held:

"[T]he power to promulgate a regulation implies the incidental authority to suspend or waive its application on certain limited, well-defined circumstances provided such exemption does not circumvent any legislative enactment or purpose, or federal law, is consistent with the agency's statutory core mission and objectives, is accomplished through a properly adopted regulation pursuant to the [Administrative Procedures Act], and establishes appropriate and clear standards for the exercise of agency discretion . . ."

Second, the court held that the Waiver Rule satisfied all of the caveats set forth above — it was limited in its application, was based on well-defined standards, and was not inconsistent with the DEP's core mission. 

The court did agree with Appellants that certain "guidance documents" posted by the DEP on its website in connection with the Waiver Rule were improper.  The court held that these documents went beyond “merely facilitating administrative  implementation of the rules . . . and actually, to some extent, announce[d] new substantive requirements.” As a result, they amounted to the DEP effectively announcing new rules without following the procedures set forth in the Administrative Procedures Act.  Accordingly, the “guidance” documents were struck down.  But, the court was careful to explain that this did not in any way change its conclusion that the Waiver Rule was proper.