New Jersey Court Answers The Burning Question: Can I Sue The Owner Of An Abandoned Church If I Slip And Fall On The Sidewalk Outside The Church?

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

Slip and fall (pd)
The facts and legal issues in sidewalk slip and fall cases sometimes read like they are pulled from law school final exams. In New Jersey, the baseline legal rule is clear — owners of commercial properties generally have a duty to maintain, in reasonably good condition, the sidewalks abutting their property, while owners of residential properties do not. But does a property owner have a duty to maintain its sidewalks when:

  • the property is both residential and commercial, like a multi-family home where one unit is owner occupied and the others are rented (click here for more on that, but the short answer is that it depends on whether the property is primarily residential or primarily commercial ); or
  • the plaintiff is a tenant and sues the landlord after slipping on a sidewalk outside the rental property (click here for more on that, but usually, yes); or
  • the property is a commercial property, final judgment of foreclosure has been entered in favor of the lender, but no sheriff's sale has been scheduled (click here for more on that, but if the lender can be considered a mortgagee in possession, then yes); or 
  • the property is owned by a condominium or common-interest community (click here for more, but generally, yes if it's a private sidewalk within the condominium, no if it's a public sidewalk abutting the condominium); or
  • the property is residential and the fall is caused by sweetgum spikey seed pods that fell from a tree on the defendant's property (click here, but, no).

And now one more can be added to the list thanks to the Appellate Division's decision is Ellis v. Hilton United Methodist Church, where the question presented was whether "sidewalk liability applies to an owner of a vacant church."

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Borrower Cannot Abandon Germane Defense To Foreclosure And Later Sue For Damages Based On That Defense

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

Foreclosure (PD)
It is always helpful when a court lets you know up front what its decision is all about. This was the case in Adelman v. BSI Financial Services, Inc., where the Appellate Division began its decision as follows: "A defendant in a foreclosure case may not fail to diligently pursue a germane defense and then pursue a civil case against the lender alleging fraud by foreclosure." Definitely not burying the lede (or is it burying the "lead"?).

In Adelman, plaintiff was the executrix of the estate of her deceased husband, Norman. Before they were married, Norman entered into a loan with his lender that was secured by a mortgage on his home. Three years later, the loan went into default, and six months after that, the lender filed a foreclosure complaint. Norman offered no defense to the complaint, and default was entered. Three months after that, he began discussing the possibility of a loan modification with the lender. However, Norman's chances for a successful modification ended when he could not make the first payment under the proposed modification and when a title search revealed five other liens on the property. 

Months later, final judgment of foreclosure was entered. Norman did not object to the entry of final judgment. One year after that, the property was sold at sheriff's sale, and nine months after the sale, the lender filed a motion to remove Norman from the property. Only then, for the first time, did Norman argue, in a motion to stay his removal from the property, that the foreclosure was improper because the loan modification cured the default. The court denied this motion. Plaintiff appealed but then withdrew the appeal. Ultimately, shortly after Norman passed, and more than five years after the loan went into default, plaintiff vacated the property. 

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Setting Priorities: When You Refinance A First Mortgage, Is It Still A FIRST Mortgage?

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

Mortgage modification (pd)It is a question I have been asked a number of times over the past few years: If a lender refinances an existing mortgage, does the new lender step into the shoes of the old lender in terms of priority? In other words, if you refinance a first mortgage, does it remain a FIRST mortgage or is it a new mortgage that is junior to other mortgages that may have been recorded after the first mortgage? Granted this is not a question as weighty as, say, "what is the meaning of life?" but if you are a lender, it is an important one. I have written about this topic before, but the Appellate Division's recent decision in Ocwen Loan Services, Inc. v. Quinn, added a new wrinkle. In that case, the question was whether a refinanced first mortgage retains its first status over a life estate, as opposed to another mortgage or lien, that was recorded prior to the original mortgage.

In Ocwen, defendants conveyed their residential property to their daughter but retained a life estate in the property. (In other words, the daughter owned the property, but defendants could live there until they died.) One year later, defendants, their daughter, and her husband acquired a loan from plaintiff that was secured by a mortgage on the property. Two years after that, the daughter refinanced the mortgage for a higher amount. The title commitment that plaintiff obtained did not disclose the recorded life estates, so defendants were not required to sign the mortgage. Through the refinancing, the daughter, among other things, paid off the prior mortgage, which defendants had signed.

Two years later, the daughter defaulted on the refinanced mortgage and plaintiff foreclosed. The parties cross-moved for clarification on the status of defendants' life estate. Plaintiff argued that the life estate was subordinate to the refinanced mortgage, meaning defendants could not rely on it to stop the foreclosure. Defendants argued that the foreclosure had to be dismissed because "they did not sign the [refinanced] mortgage nor pledge their life estates in connection with the [ ] loan refinancing." 

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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. 

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In New Jersey, You Can Now Disapprove A Real Estate Contract By Email Or Fax (But Not Telegram)

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

Telepgraph (pd)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 personal service. In Conley v. Guerrero, a case that seems to be a case study in the concept of raising form over substance, the New Jersey Supreme Court updated this requirement to allow the notice of disapproval to also be sent by fax or email. (Those of you still using telegrams may be out of luck, however, because this no longer appears to be an appropriate method of service for the notice of disapproval.) 

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 sent a disapproval of plaintiffs' contract to both plaintiffs' counsel and the broker (who was a duel agent represented both plaintiffs and seller) during the attorney-review period. He sent the notice via email, which plaintiffs' counsel and the agent acknowledged receiving within the attorney review period. Nonetheless, plaintiffs claimed that the sellers were bound by the contract and had to sell to his clients because the disapproval was not sent in the proscribed manner — by certified mail, telegram, or hand delivery.

Plaintiffs sued, seeking specific performance. Both sides moved for summary judgment. The Chancery Division granted defendants' motion and dismissed the complaint. The Chancery Division held that, while seller did not comply with the method-of-delivery requirements set forth in the contract, this breach was only "minor" because plaintiffs' counsel acknowledged receiving the notice within the attorney review period. Therefore, the Chancery Division held that the "underlying justification for the attorney review clause" — to protect parties against being bound by broker-prepared contracts without the opportunity to review them with their attorneys — was accomplished.

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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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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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