A New Twist On Who Gets The House When The Relationship Ends

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

House + money (pd)If you read this blog then you know that failed relationships often make for the most interesting cases. For example, if your would-be spouse calls off your wedding, then you are usually entitled to get the engagement ring back. But, if you cancel your wedding reception, you may not be entitled to a refund from the venue where it would have taken place. And, of course, if your ex-wife agreed to pay all "utilities" under a divorce settlement but fails to pay for water filtration services that remained in your name and you get sued by the water filtration company, your ex-wife will be required to reimburse you for those charges. Now, Burke v. Bernardini can be added to this list.

In Burke, plaintiff and defendant were involved in a "romantic relationship." (They had actually known each other for 25 years before they began dating.) While they were dating, plaintiff bought property on which he built a house where he and defendant lived together. He paid approximately $368,000 for the property and another $100,000 for improvements and additions. Both plaintiff and defendant contributed furnishings.

Before buying the property, the parties entered into an agreement that provided:

[Plaintiff] acknowledges and agrees that [defendant] has provided, and will continue to provide[,] companionship to him of an indefinite length. [Plaintiff] promises and represents that upon closing, the home shall be deeded and titled in the name of "[plaintiff] and [defendant], as joint tenants with the right of survivorship."

(As a side note, only in the hands of a lawyer does "'til death do us part" become "I agree to provide companionship of an indefinite length.") The agreement also provided that defendant would have no "financial obligations for the home, including, but not limited to, property taxes, homeowners association fees, and homeowners insurance."  

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Transfer Made On The Morning Of Sheriff’s Sale, For The Purpose Of Delaying The Sheriff’s Sale, Deemed Fraudulent

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

Auction (pd)Sometimes you read decisions and you don't understand how the court arrived at its conclusion based on the facts of the case. Then other times, the conclusion just makes sense. These are the decisions you read and think to yourself, "of course you can't do that." The Appellate Division's opinion in 5 Perry Street, LLC v. Southwind Properties, LLC, is one of these cases.

In Perry Street, defendants were a limited liability corporation and the sole member of that corporation. The corporate defendant owned property in Cape May that it operated as a bed and breakfast.Two "non-institutional lenders" held mortgages on the property. After they foreclosed and obtained a final judgment of foreclosure, a sheriff's sale was scheduled. The corporate defendant obtained four adjournments of the sheriff's sale and attempted to refinance the property, but was "unable to consummate a transaction" before the sheriff's sale. 

Instead, the day before the sheriff's sale, the individual defendant filed for bankruptcy. She then transferred the underlying property from the corporate defendant to herself. The consideration for the transfer was $1 and the "Balance of outstanding mortgages $80,000.00." The $1 consideration was typed into the deed, but the individual defendant hand wrote the part about the outstanding mortgages. She claimed that her intent was to "assume personal liability for the mortgages," but the Appellate Division noted that the balance of the mortgages at the time was almost $250,000, not $80,000, and that other documents she signed reflected that the only consideration was $1. She "filed the deed the next day, an hour and a half before the Sheriff's sale."  

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Dismissal With Prejudice Too Harsh A Remedy For Expert’s Unavailability

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

Gavel (pd)There is often tension between a court's need to effectively manage its docket and the overriding objective that a lawsuit be resolved on its merits and not because a party (or its counsel) misses a deadline. Courts establish deadlines. If they are ignored, can the court — as a sanction, and in the interest of managing its docket — dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice? According to the Appellate Division in a recent unpublished decision, Trezza v. Lambert-Wooley, the answer to this question is "no," unless the noncompliance was purposeful and no lesser remedy was available to the court. 

In Trezza,plaintiffs sued defendants for medical malpractice. Three years after the lawsuit was filed, the court set a peremptory trial date. This was rescheduled when the court did not reach the case on the trial date. The trial did not take place on the rescheduled date or a subsequent rescheduled date, both times because defendant's designated trial counsel was unavailable. Thereafter, the Presiding Judge issued a sua sponte order scheduling trial for approximately four months later and setting forth "specific and stringent terms as to the course and conduct of the case relative to trial." The order mandated that: (1) the trial date would not be adjourned to accommodate the parties' or counsels' personal or professional schedules; (2) counsel was required  to monitor the schedules of their parties, witnesses, and experts, and if one or more were not going to be available on the trial date, arrange for a de bene esse deposition ahead of trial; and (3) if designated trial counsel was not available on the trial date, alternate counsel would have to be found, whether or not from the same firm.

Five days before the scheduled trial date, plaintiff's counsel requested that the trial be carried for four days due to the unavailability of plaintiff's liability expert, which he only learned about a few days prior to the request. Defendants' counsel consented to the request. The judge assigned to the case considered the request but, in light of the Presiding Judge's order, determined that he did not have the authority to grant the adjournment. He sent the parties to the Presiding Judge, who denied the request and directed the parties to proceed to trial. "Predicated upon the terms of the order, the age of the case, and plaintiff's expert's unavailability, the judge [then] dismissed the complaint with prejudice." Plaintiffs appealed.

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You Can’t Cross Examine A Map!

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

Drug free zone (pd)In a case decided earlier last week, State v. Wilson, the New Jersey Supreme Court answered an interesting Constitutional Law question: Whether the admission into evidence of a map showing the designated 500-foot  "drug free zone" around a public park violated an accused's right, under both the U.S. Constitution and New Jersey Constitution, to be "confronted with the witnesses against him." The court held that maps like this do not violate the Confrontation Clause and, if properly authenticated, are admissible. The problem in Wilson, however, was that the map was not properly authenticated as a public record, therefore it was inadmissible hearsay. 

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that, "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him." The New Jersey Constitution contains an almost identical provision. "The Confrontation Clause affords a procedural guarantee that the reliability of evidence will be tested 'in a particular manner' through the crucible of cross-examination." As interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Confrontation Clause provides that a "testimonial statement against a defendant by a non-testifying witness is inadmissible . . . unless the witness is unavailable and the defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine him or her." The threshold issue, therefore, is whether a statement is "testimonial."

The U.S. Supreme Court has "labored to flesh out what it means for a statement to be 'testimonial.'" It eventually arrived at the "primary purpose" test, which asks whether a statement has the primary purpose of "establishing or proving past events potentially relevant to a later criminal prosecution." If it does, then it is testimonial. If not, then it is not. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that statements made to police to assist them in responding to an "ongoing emergency," rather than to create a record for a future prosecution, are not testimonial. 

The New Jersey Supreme Court has wrestled with this "primary purpose" test as well. For example, in one case, police sent a defendant's blood to a private laboratory after a fatal car crash. Approximately 14 analysts performed a variety of tests on the blood. A supervisor at the lab then wrote a report concluding that the defendant's blood contained traces of cocaine and other drugs and that this "would have caused the defendant to be impaired an unfit to operate a motor vehicle." The State sought to admit the report, or statements from it, into evidence. The court refused, holding that the report was testimonial because its primary purpose was to "serve as a direct accusation against the defendant." Similarly, the court held, in a separate case, that the statements in an autopsy report were testimonial because the autopsy was conducted after a homicide investigation had begun, after the defendant was a suspect, and after he had spoken to police, and because the autopsy was conducted in the presence of the lead State investigator. Thus, the court held, the "primary purpose of the report was to establish facts for later use in the prosecution."

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(I Swear This Is Not A Boring Post About) Foreclosures And Statutes Of Limitations

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

Mortgage (pd)Although foreclosures have not been in the news as much lately as they were several months ago, New Jersey courts still issue at least one or two decisions per week involving residential foreclosures. While I have written about some of the more interesting ones in the past (here, here, and here), most now follow a familiar pattern – final judgment is entered against a borrower, the borrower moves to vacate the judgment arguing that the lender lacks standing, and (almost always) the court finds that the lender had standing and denies the motion. Every now and again, however, a court addresses an interesting issue worth writing about. The Law Division's decision in Deutsche Bank National Trust Company v. Hochmeyer is one of these cases.

In Hochmeyer, defendant entered into a mortgage with a maturity date of June 1, 2036 that was recorded on October 25, 2007. Defendant defaulted on December 1, 2006. Remember these dates. They will be important later on.

Under New Jersey law, a lawsuit to foreclose on a residential mortgage must be brought before the later of (1) six years from the date when the last payment is made or "the maturity date set forth in the mortgage," OR (2) thirty six years from the date the mortgage was recorded, OR (3) twenty years from the date of default. In other words, every foreclosure lawsuit has three potential end dates for the statute of limitations, but only the earliest one counts. 

In Hochmeyer, the parties agreed that calculating the limitations period using the second or third options would yield dates many years in the future — thirty six years from the date the mortgage was recorded would be October 25, 2043, and twenty years from the date of default would be December 1, 2026. They disagreed, however, over the calculation under the first option. The difference was important because, under defendant's approach, the date not only would have been the earliest one, and thus the operative one, but it would have expired before the complaint was filed rendering the complaint untimely. Plaintiff obviously disagreed with defendant's approach. For the reasons set forth below, the court sided with plaintiff.

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