One Minute for Oral Argument? Motion Decided in 60 Seconds Doesn’t Survive Appeal.

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

Stopwatch (pd)
"We anticipate that the court will engage counsel with more patience on remand."

I assume this is not something a trial court wants to see at the end of an opinion from an appellate court. But, this was precisely how the Appellate Division ended its decision in Midland Funding v. Bordeaux. The case, which involved the enforceability of an arbitration provision, is notable as much for the manner in which it was decided by the trial court as the legal issues at play in the decision.

In Midland Funding, plaintiff sued defendant over $1,018.04 in consumer debt that plaintiff purchased from the original creditor. In response, defendant denied liability and asserted a counterclaim alleging plaintiff violated the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. During discovery, defendant moved to compel plaintiff to answer interrogatories. Plaintiff responded with a motion to compel arbitration. On the eve of the return date of that motion, defendant moved for summary judgment. Oral argument on these motion was adjourned for approximately 30 days. 

When oral argument was eventually held, it did not last long. The Appellate Division noted that the transcript "show[ed] that the oral argument hearing began at 9:10 a.m. and concluded at 9:11 a.m." In the span of a minute, the trial court concluded that defendant's credit card agreement "contain[ed] an arbitration agreement," therefore "[i]t's going to arbitration." The trial court also denied defendant's summary judgment motion without explanation and declared that defendant's motion to compel answers to interrogatories was moot.

Continue reading “One Minute for Oral Argument? Motion Decided in 60 Seconds Doesn’t Survive Appeal.”

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."

Continue reading “Party Cannot Lose Its Right To Jury Trial For Violating Procedural Rules”

Not Quite El Chapo’s Escaping Through A Tunnel Under His Shower, But Still An Escape From “Custody”

HandcuffsThere have been two high-profile prison escapes in recent weeks — one in Mexico and one in upstate New York. In United States v. Small, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit dealt with a third escape that was much lower-profile but still interesting. It presented the question of whether an individual could be guilty of the federal crime of escape even if he was never in the physical custody of the federal government or its agents.

In Small, defendant was serving a state prison term when he was convicted of federal tax fraud and sentenced to 135 months in a federal prison. The federal sentence was set to begin after the state sentence expired. To that end, the U.S. Marshal delivered to the state prison a detainer, which "governed Small's transfer to federal authorities upon completion of his state sentence." A few years later, however, the state prison "received documents in the mail, ostensibly from the [federal court], but which in reality were forgeries sent at Small's direction," which purported to vacate Small's conviction and sentence. The forgeries must have been good because the state prison believed them to be genuine and released Small after his state prison sentence ended.

A few months after he was released from state prison, a federal agent learned of Small's release. Federal agents quickly located and arrested Small, charging him with several crimes including escape. Small moved to dismiss that charge on the ground that he was never in federal custody, a requisite element of the federal crime of escape. He then entered an "open plea of guilty" and was sentenced to 60 months in prison on each count of the indictment (to be served concurrently with each other but consecutively to his tax fraud sentence).

 

Continue reading “Not Quite El Chapo’s Escaping Through A Tunnel Under His Shower, But Still An Escape From “Custody””

Today at SCOTUS – [Insert Bad Fish Pun Here]

by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) 

 In an interesting case this morning at the US Supreme Court, the Justices will be asked to determine whether a fish is a “tangible object.” No. Really. That is the issue in Yates v. United States.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal, makes it a crime to “destroy, mutilate, conceal, or cover up any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to obstruct a federal investigation. It is unlikely that Congress had fish in mind when it passed the Act, but this is nonetheless the federal law that was used to convict John Yates — captain of the Miss Katie, a commercial fishing boat out of Cortex, Florida — for throwing 72 red grouper that were allegedly below the legal limit back into the ocean.  

 

Continue reading “Today at SCOTUS – [Insert Bad Fish Pun Here]”