Last week, I wrote about an exception to the strict liability normally imposed on dog owners under New Jersey's dog bite statute. (A short time before that, I wrote about yet another exception to strict liability under the dog bite statute, so the exceptions are obviously more interesting than the rule.) This post is about a different dog bite case, Ward v. Ochoa, with a similar result even though it was not decided under the dog bite statute. Ward involved a home inspector who was attacked and severely injured while performing a home inspection. She sued the dog owners (who eventually settled) along with the real estate agency and real estate agent who were selling the house. Like the dog groomer in last week's post, however, the home inspector's claims were dismissed.
Although the temperature today is supposed to reach 90 degrees, this post is about frozen pipes. More specifically, pipes in a house that is under contract for sale that freeze and cause property damage after the scheduled, but not completed, closing, but before the buyer takes possession of the home. In a case like that, who is liable for the damage?
In Bianchi v. Ladjen, plaintiff was under contract to buy a home. It was an all cash sale, no mortgage was involved. The closing was scheduled for New Year's Eve. Plaintiff performed a walk through on the morning of the closing and reported no damage to, or issues with, the home. The closing could not be completed as scheduled, however, because plaintiff did not wire the balance of the purchase price to the title company prior to the closing as he had been instructed to do. Instead, plaintiff brought a certified check to the closing. As a result, the parties entered into an escrow agreement, which provided that the title company would hold "all closing proceeds" and the "Deed & Keys" in escrow until the check cleared.
This is where it gets tricky.
I have written a number of times about New Jersey's Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). (Here, here, and here for example.) This statute, which was largely ignored after it was enacted in 1981, became increasingly popular in recent years as part of so-called no injury class actions. (So-called mostly by defense counsel, not plaintiff's counsel.) Its popularity may now have come to an end, however, because the New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued its opinion in the highly-anticipated case, Spade v. Select Comfort Corp., which answered two questions certified to it by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, one of which appears to hamper, at the very least, the ability of plaintiffs to sue for alleged violations of the act.
By way of brief background, the TCCWNA was enacted to prevent deceptive practices in consumer contracts by prohibiting the use of illegal terms or warranties. It provides:
No seller . . . shall in the course of his business offer to any consumer or prospective consumer or enter into any written consumer contract . . . or display any written . . . notice or sign . . . which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller . . . as established by State or Federal law at the time the offer is made . . . or the . . . notice or sign is given or displayed.
To state a claim under the TCCWNA, a plaintiff must prove four elements: (1) that it is a consumer; (2) that defendant is a seller; (3) that the seller offered a consumer contract containing a provision that violated a legal right of the consumer or a responsibility of the seller; and (4) that it was an "aggrieved consumer." Any party found to have violated the TCCWNA is liable for a civil penalty of not less than $100, actual damages, or both, and reasonable attorneys' fees and court costs.
The questions certified to the Supreme Court in Spade arose out of two cases that had been consolidated by the district court. Each involved plaintiffs who ordered furniture pursuant to contracts that violated certain regulations promulgated by New Jersey's Division of Consumer Affairs. The regulations require, among other things, that furniture sellers deliver furniture to customers by or before the promised delivery date or provide written notice that they will not be able to do so. Sellers must also provide notice to the purchaser that if the delivery is late, the consumer has the option of canceling the order and receiving a full refund, or agreeing to accept delivery at a specified later date. The regulations also prohibit sellers from including certain language in their contracts, such as "all sales final," "no cancellations," and "no refunds." In Spade, plaintiffs alleged that the contracts they entered into with defendants did not contain language required by these regulations, contained language prohibited by these regulations, or both. Notably, however, plaintiffs received their furniture deliveries on time.
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.
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.
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."
In a recent post, I wrote about New Jersey's Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). It has become exceedingly popular with the plaintiffs' bar and now appears frequently (usually along with another favorite, the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act) in putative consumer class action complaints. The New Jersey Supreme Court is now going to weigh in on one of the unsettled portions of this newly-popular law — whether a TCCWNA claim can be based on an alleged omission in a contract as opposed to an affirmative misstatement.
The case discussed in my prior post — Matijakovich P.C. Richard & Son — involved the purchase and delivery of a washing machine. Although the washing machine was delivered on time, plaintiff sued because the contract with the seller did not contain language disclosing defendant's obligation in case of delay. TCCWNA provides that "[n]o seller . . . shall in the course of his business offer to any consumer or prospective consumer or enter into any written consumer contract . . . which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller." Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that a TCCWNA claim cannot be based on an omission. It argued that TCCWNA prohibits a seller from entering into a consumer contract that includes an illegal term, therefore it applies only to affirmative statements, not omissions of allegedly required language. The district court noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court had not yet ruled on this issue, but relied on federal case law to grant the motion and dismiss the complaint.
A similar scenario played out in another recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey,Truglio v. Planet Fitness, Inc. In that case, plaintiff alleged that the contract she entered into with her health club violated TCCWNA by failing to (1) conspicuously set forth her total payment obligations and (2) set forth that a bond had been filed with the Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs. The district court dismissed this portion of the complaint. Like the Matijakovich court, the district court noted that the New Jersey Supreme Court had not yet ruled on the issue, but it relied on the same federal law as the Matijakovich court for the proposition that an alleged omission cannot serve as the basis for a TCCWNA claim.
Both of these courts looked for guidance from the New Jersey Supreme Court and found none. This may soon change. The New Jersey Supreme Court just granted certification in two cases — Bozzi v. OSI Restaurant Partners, LLC and Dugan v. TGI Friday’s, Inc. — that should resolve the question of whether a TCCWNA claim can be based on an alleged omission. I wrote about Dugan here, but both cases involved restaurants not including drink prices on their menus, and both appeals question whether class certification is appropriate under TCCWNA in light of this omission. (The Dugan case also has a second question about whether class certification is appropriate where a restaurant charges different prices for drinks depending on where they are purchased (i.e., at the bar vs. at a table).) It will be many months before we get an answer from the Supreme Court in these cases, but this case will be closely watched by both plaintiffs' and defense counsel so stay tuned.