Court Awards Attorney Almost $100,000 Less Than He Requested In New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act Case

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

Legal fees (pd)I recently wrote about Garmeaux v. DNV Consepts, Inc., a case in which the Appellate Division held that, under New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act, successful plaintiffs can, in certain circumstances, recover legal fees they incurred in connection with both the prosecution of their affirmative claims and the defense against any counterclaims. If the facts relevant to a counterclaim are "inextricably caught up with," and related to the common core of, the facts relevant to an affirmative CFA claim, then legal fees can be awarded for both claims. In another recent decision, Riccardi v. Bruno, the Appellate Division addressed a similar issue but arrived at a result that was less favorable to plaintiff than the result in Garmeaux.

In Riccardi, plaintiff purchased a home from one of the defendants. The home had been damaged in a fire and required "extensive renovations" before being put on the market. (Although it was not listed as having been fire damaged, the certificate of occupancy issued by the township at the closing noted "rehab after fire.") After the closing, plaintiff allegedly discovered numerous problems with the house, including mold, burnt and fractured joists, and damaged foundation walls. He sued the seller and several related entities (architect, contractor, home inspector, etc.), alleging breach of contract and a violation of the CFA.

Default was entered against several defendants for failing to answer the complaint, and the claims against several others were dismissed either by summary judgment or at the close of plaintiff's case in chief. The jury then determined that the two remaining defendants — the prior owners of the property — violated the CFA. The jury's verdict was based on a "knowing concealment, suppression, or omission of a material fact with the intent that other would rely upon that fact." (The decision does not identify the fact that was omitted.) The jury found no cause of action under the CFA based on an unconscionable commercial practice, fraud, false pretense, false promise , or misrepresentation. And, it awarded plaintiff only $4,500, which was "attributable to the cost to repair a damaged window frame and to dispose of buried construction litter."

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Party Cannot Lose Its Right To Jury Trial For Violating Procedural Rules

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

Jury (pd)It is not often that a case that starts in the Special Civil Part — New Jersey's small-claims court — ends up before the New Jersey Supreme Court. But this is exactly what happened in Williams v. American Auto Logistics. It could not have been cost effective for the plaintiff to see this case through two separate bench trials, two separate appeals to the Appellate Division, and finally an appeal to the Supreme Court. But the issue in the case was so important that, notwithstanding the costs, the effort was likely worthwhile.

In Williams, plaintiff had his car shipped from Alaska to New Jersey by defendant. After he picked up the car, he discovered water damage in the trunk. Plaintiff sued in the Special Civil Part after efforts to amicably resolve the dispute failed. Plaintiff did not demand a jury trial in his complaint, but defendant did in its answer. At the pretrial conference, the trial court referred the parties to mediation, which was unsuccessful. Upon returning from mediation, defendant waived its jury demand. Plaintiff objected, but the trial court granted defendant's request. In support of its decision, the trial court noted that plaintiff had violated Rule 4:25-7 by failing to make the requisite pretrial submissions. (Among other things, Rule 4:25-7 requires parties to submit proposed voir dire questions, jury instructions, and jury verdict forms.) The trial court held that it could deny plaintiff's request for a jury trial as a sanction for this failure. Therefore, the case proceeded to a bench trial, where the trial court found no merit to plaintiff's claims.

Plaintiff appealed and the Appellate Division reversed and remanded. It held that a jury demand can only be withdrawn by consent, even when only one party demanded a jury trial and that party seeks to withdraw the demand. It further explained that "a trial judge may impose sanctions, including striking the jury demand, on a party that fails to submit the requisite pretrial information," but that the trial court in Williams erred by "allowing a single party to unilaterally waive the jury demand."

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As If You Needed Reminding: Don’t Violate Protective Orders!

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

Gavel (pd)The Appellate Division recently reminded all lawyers of the importance of complying with protective orders. In Rotondi v. Dibre Auto Group, LLC, the Appellate Division affirmed a trial court's decision to disqualify plaintiff's counsel from continuing to represent plaintiff because she violated such an order.

In Rotondi, plaintiff purchased a new car from defendant car dealership. One year later, she attempted to refinance the car with the dealer, but ended up filing a class action lawsuit against the dealer and various other entities involved in the refinancing for alleged improprieties in the refinancing process. She alleged violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and various other statutory and common law causes of action. Although filed as a putative class action, plaintiff's attempt to certify the class were eventually denied and the case, in the words of the trial court, "ultimately became simply a claim by [plaintiff] against the dealer."

As part of that lawsuit, the trial court entered a protective order that allowed the parties to designate materials as "Confidential" or "Attorneys' Eyes Only." Under the order, documents designated as "Confidential" could only be used by the "receiving party for purposes of the prosecution or defense of [the] action," and could not be used "by the receiving party for any business, commercial, competitive, or other purpose." Documents designated as "Attorneys' Eyes Only" could only be "disclosed [ ] to outside counsel for the receiving party and to such other persons as counsel for the producing party agrees in advance or as ordered by the court."

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Appellate Division Vindicates Counsel Who Was Punished By Trial Court For Being Ready For Trial

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

Angry judge (pd)Yes, you read that headline right. In Acevedo v. Masih, defense counsel was ready for trial on the trial date but the trial court nonetheless entered judgment against defendant because defendant's counsel (and plaintiff's counsel) "did not show up for trial." Let me explain.

Acevedo was a personal injury lawsuit arising out of a car accident. After discovery, the parties engaged in non-binding arbitration, which resulted in an award in plaintiffs' favor for $86,250. Defendants rejected this award by filing a timely demand for trial de novo and the case was scheduled for trial in Sussex County. This is where the case went, temporarily, off the rails.

Prior to the scheduled trial date, defense counsel notified the appropriate judges in both Sussex County and Morris County that he had two older cases scheduled for trial in Morris County on the same day that Acevedo was set for trial in Sussex County. He advised the judges that he was ready to proceed in all three cases but sought to have Acevedo marked "ready, subject to" the older Morris County cases. He further advised the judges that he would appear for the trial call in the oldest Morris County case on the trial date.

At the same time, plaintiff's counsel in Acevedo requested, with defense counsel's consent, an adjournment of the trial because, among other reasons, plaintiffs' expert witness was not available on the scheduled trial date.

 

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Oops?!? Failure To Include Transcript In Appellate Record Results In Harsh Sanction

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

It's not quite "deflategate" but the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently reminded all of us that rules are rules and they need to be followed whether they involve the air in a football or the contents of an appellate record.

In Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc. v. Gateway Funding Diversified Mortgage Services, L.P.,  plaintiff alleged that defendant was required to "make good on four mortgage loans" that plaintiff's subsidiary had purchased from defendant's predecessor ten years earlier. The district court eventually granted plaintiff's summary judgment motion, and held that defendant was liable to plaintiff for an amount totaling around $450,000 plus interest. The reasons for the district court's decision are not as interesting as what happened to defendant when it appealed that decision.

 

 

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Thank You, Captain Obvious — It Is Improper To Throw Your Records In A Dumpster In Advance Of A Lawsuit

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

When most litigators hear the term “spoliation” nowadays, they probably think of emails, servers, document retention policies, and back-up tapes. But the Appellate Division recently reminded us that old-fashioned spoliation is still alive and well (and improper).

In Hess Corporation v. American Gardens Management Company, plaintiff sued various single-purpose entities with which plaintiff had contracted to sell oil and gas. Plaintiff also sued the individual owner of all of these entities, which were essentially judgment proof, arguing that it was entitled to pierce the corporate veil and hold him liable because he had co-mingled funds and fraudulently conveyed and diverted assets from the various corporate entities for his personal use.

During discovery, plaintiff served the individual defendant with a document request. The individual defendant failed to respond and his answer was stricken. He later moved to reinstate his answer, first arguing that he could not answer the discovery request without implicating his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination (which the court rejected) and then claiming that he did not have many of the documents requested. Based on the latter, the court vacated its prior order and reinstated his answer.

 

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Lender Allowed To Foreclose But Punished By Court For Violating Consumer Fraud Act

by: Peter J. Gallagher

A New Jersey trial court issued an interesting opinion last week, allowing a lender to foreclose but imposing significant limitations on the lender because the court concluded that the lender had violated the Consumer Fraud Act.

In Freedom Mortgage Corporation v. Mamie E. Major, borrower wanted to refinance the mortgage on her home to lower the 5 5/8 interest rate and take out additional money to help pay for her grandson’s college tuition. Defendant was 70 years old, earned approximately $30,000 per year and owed $341,500 on her existing mortgage. At the time of the refinance her home had a market value of $365,000, but she eventually abandoned her plan to obtain more equity from the home and instead refinanced just to lower the interest rate.

Her existing home loan was an FHA-insured loan and was current, so Freedom Mortgage Company treated the refinance as an FHA “Streamline loan,” which required little or no new or extra documentation and did not require a new appraisal. According to Freedom, FHA guidelines allowed it to rely on the underwriting performed by the prior lender. Nonetheless, before approving the refinance, Freedom used a “net benefit” test to determine whether it was justified, and concluded that it was because both the interest rate and the monthly payment would be lower under the new loan.

At the closing, borrower signed a HUD-1A Settlement Statement that showed a new loan of $354,005, which included the payoff of the prior loan, the payoff of open tax balances, and $11,479.65 in settlement charges, payable to Freedom, for, among other things, a loan discount fee, commitment fee, application fee, and courier fee.

After making six payments on the new loan, borrower defaulted. Freedom filed a foreclosure complaint, which borrower answered. Freedom then moved to strike the answer and proceed with the foreclosure as uncontested. The court granted this motion, but found that there was a factual issue as to whether Freedom violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”) in connection with the refinance. After trial on this issue, the court concluded that Freedom had, in fact, violated the CFA.

 

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