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 A recent unpublished Law Division opinion, Griffoul v. NRG Residential Solar Solutions, LLC, is the latest example.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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Exception To The Rule: Ambulance Service Providers Are “Learned Professionals” And Not Subject To New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act

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

Ambulance (pd)New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") is generally recognized as one of the strongest consumer protection laws in the country. It prohibits "any unconscionable commercial practice, deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise or misrepresentation" that leads to an "ascertainable loss." But, certain "learned professionals" — doctors, lawyers, hospitals, etc. — are insulated from liability under the CFA. In Atlantic Ambulance Corporation v. Cullum, the Appellate Division added ambulance service providers to the list of "learned professionals" who are not subject to the CFA. 

In Atlantic Ambulance, defendants received services from plaintiff, an ambulance service provider. After they failed to pay the bills for those services, plaintiff sued. In response, defendants filed a counterclaim alleging that they were overbilled by plaintiff in violation of the CFA. Defendants sought to bring their counterclaim as a class action on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated people who were allegedly overcharged during a six-year period.

After five years of discovery, defendants moved for class certification. The trial court denied the motion for a number of reasons, only one of which is relevant for this post. Plaintiff argued that defendants could not maintain a cause of action under the CFA because they did not pay their bills, therefore they had not suffered any "ascertainable loss." The trial court agreed, expressly rejecting defendants' argument that an excessive bill from plaintiff, by itself, was enough to prove an ascertainable loss. Defendants appealed. 

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Entrepreneurial Inmate Loses Lawsuit

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

Jail (pd)While pro se lawsuits by prisoners are not unusual, you don't see ones like Tormasi v. Hayman every day.

In Tormasi, plaintiff sued several officials from the prison in which he was serving a life sentence. In the lawsuit, he claimed that they improperly seized his intellectual property assets and corporate records. As the Appellate Division explained: "During his incarceration, plaintiff acquired various intellectual property assets, which he assigned to Advanced Data Solutions Corporation (ADS) in exchange for sole ownership of the corporation." At some point during his incarceration, prison officials seized plaintiff's personal property, including: "1) miscellaneous corporate paperwork related to ADS . . 2) patent-prosecution documents; 3) an unfiled provisional patent application; 4) several floppy diskettes; and 5) various legal correspondence." Plaintiff sued in federal court, asserting a claim under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, various federal civil rights claims, and a state law claim for inverse condemnation.

 

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Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now . . . Third Circuit Affirms Arbitrators’ Ruling In Favor of Song Writing Duo

Aint no stoppin us now (pd)"Singer-songwriters John Whitehead and Gene McFadden were an integral part of the Philadelphia music scene in the 1970s." So begins the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Whitehead v. The Pullman Group, LLC. (For the uninitiated, click here for a summary of the "Philadelphia Sound" to which this sentence refers and of which plaintiffs Whitehead and McFadden were a part.)

At issue in that case was Whitehead and McFadden's song catalog, which includes, among other things, the publishing rights to their biggest hit, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." In 2002, defendant entered  into a contract with Whitehead and McFadden that gave him the exclusive right to purchase the catalog following a 180-day due diligence period. After this period, defendant had the right to terminate the contract upon written notice to Whitehead and McFadden. Defendant claimed that his due diligence revealed several tax liens that  diminished the value of the catalog. He claimed that he communicated this to Whitehead and McFadden over the phone. They responded that they would get back to him with more information, but instead contacted him and told him that they did not want to consummate the transaction, which defendant claimed was a breach of the agreement.

Several years later, after both Whitehead and McFadden died, their estates received an offer from Warner Chappell Music to purchase Whitehead and McFadden's song catalog. Shortly before the deal was completed, however, defendant wrote the estates and notified them of the existence of the 2002 agreement. (The estates were unaware of the deal with defendant prior to receiving this letter.) Shortly thereafter, Warner Chappell Music withdrew its offer. The estates then sued in state court seeking (1) a declaratory judgment that the 2002 contract was void, and (2) damages for defendant's alleged tortious interference with their deal with Warner Chappell Music. Defendant removed the lawsuit to federal court and counterclaimed for his own declaratory judgment and damages for the alleged breach of the 2002 contract. Both sides eventually agreed to arbitrate their disputes. 

 

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Public or Private? Right To Counsel Of Your Choosing May Depend On Whether You Have Private Counsel Or Appointed Counsel

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

I don't usually post about criminal law cases but the Appellate Division's recent opinion in  State v. Martinez hit close enough to home that I thought it was worth a few words. (I apologize for the uncharacteristically long title. Professor Cole, one of my journalism professors from college, would not be proud.)  

A few years back I was fortunate enough to be asked to represent the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (ACDL-NJ) as amicus curiae in a case before the New Jersey Supreme Court — State v. Miller — that involved a similar issue to the one addressed in Martinez. Miller involved a defendant who was represented by the public defender's office. In the weeks and months leading up to the trial, defendant had been dealing with one public defender, but on the morning of trial a different public defender showed up to represent him. The trial court denied defendant's request for an adjournment, and forced defendant to go to trial with a lawyer he met for the first time on the morning of trial. Defendant was convicted and appealed the trial court's denial of his adjournment request. Both the Appellate Division and the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision. Over an impassioned dissent from Justice Albin, the Supreme Court held that "it would have been preferable for the trial judge to have postponed the commencement of the [trial]," but that the decision to not do so was not an abuse of the trial court's broad discretion to control its own calendar and did not violate the defendant's right to counsel.

In Martinez, the facts were slightly different. Most importantly, as it turns out, unlike Miller, the defendant in Martinez was not represented by a public defender but was instead represented by private counsel. In Martinez, defendant retained a law firm to represent him and expected a specific partner from that firm to represent him at trial. However, the partner was not available on the trial date because of a conflict with another matter. It appears that both the prosecution and defense expected and agreed that the trial date would be adjourned to accomodate the partner's schedule, but the trial court refused to do so. Over defendant's objection, the trial court forced defendant to go to trial, not with the partner that he expected would handle the case, but with an associate from the partner's firm. By all accounts, the associate was capable and experienced, but defendant nonetheless objected to having to go to trial with counsel that was not the counsel he chose. 

 

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