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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We got next! Injured during a pick-up game, no expert needed; injured during a league game, get an expert.

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

Soccer (pd)Continuing with a recent theme of people getting injured playing sports and then suing the people who allegedly injured them, we now have Greaves v. Inline Skating Club of America, LLC. In Greaves, plaintiff was the goalie on a soccer team. He was injured during a formal, league-sponsored game with referees (this will be important later on). The Appellate Division described the underlying events as follows:

[Plaintiff] was severely injured while playing soccer as goalie for "Kiss the Baby" team. At the time, plaintiff was in the process of picking up the ball inside the goalie  box.  He had the ball for approximate[ly]  [five] to [ten] seconds when he was tackled/kicked and/or pushed to the ground in a violent manner by .  .  .  a player on the  opposing soccer team. Plaintiff struck his head on the hard surface losing brief [sic] consciousness. At the same time and place, the game was being refereed by [the referee] who was working as an agent and/or employee of [defendant].

Plaintiff sued the player who made contact with him, the referee, and the facility that ran the league. Plaintiff never served the player or the referee with the summons and complaint, however, so they were dismissed and the lawsuit proceeded against the facility alone. Plaintiff alleged that the facility was "responsible for maintaining a safe facility and failed to supervise and provide security at the facility." Stated differently, plaintiff alleged that the referee's failure to officiate the game properly caused his injuries.

Plaintiff never produced an expert report during the discovery period. After receiving an adverse decision from an arbitrator during mandatory, pre-trial arbitration, plaintiff moved for trial de novo and served a liability expert report. Defendant objected, forcing plaintiff to move to reopen discovery so that he could amend his discovery responses to identify his expert and serve the expert report. The motion was denied.  Defendant then moved for summary judgment, which was also denied because the trial court held there were issues of fact regarding the role of the referee and whether defendant breached any duty it may have had to plaintiff.

Continue reading “We got next! Injured during a pick-up game, no expert needed; injured during a league game, get an expert.”

“Here’s the mail it never fails . . . :” Judge Posner Criticizes “Rhetorical Envelopes” In Which Judicial Opinions Are “Delivered To The Reader”

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

Judge (pd)[Apologies for the Blue's Clues reference in the title to this post.]

In his concurring opinion in a recent Seventh Circuit decision — United States v. Dessart — Judge Posner agreed with the majority's conclusions, but wrote separately to express his "reservations about some of the verbal formulas in the majority opinion." He did not "criticize the majority for reciting them" because, as he noted, they are "common, orthodox, even canonical." But he did criticize the "verbal formulas" themselves as being "inessential and in some respects erroneous" and thus, he urged, "ripe for rexamination."

What were the "verbal formulas" that Judge Posner was so keen to criticize? Just some of the legal standards that we see recited in opinions every day. For example, the commonly-used "abuse of discretion" standard, of which Judge Posner appears not to be a big fan. In his concurring opinion, Judge Posner noted that the majority defined this standard as including "among other missteps, 'material errors of law.'" This apparently did not jibe with Judge Posner's understanding of discretion and its abuse, as he explained:

Of course, material errors of law are potentially very serious, but what has that to do with discretion or its abuse? Common as the term "abuse of discretion" is in opinions dealing with appeals from district court decisions, I find it opaque. If the appellate court is persuaded that the trial court erred in a way that makes the trial court's decision unacceptable, it reverses. What has discretion to do with it? And "abuse" seems altogether too strong a term to describe what may be no more than a disagreement between equally competent judges – the trial judge and the appellate judges – that the appellate judges happen to be empowered to resolve as they see fit.

Similarly, he challenged the majority's similarly well-settled statement that an appellate court, when reviewing a trial court's decision to issue a search warrant, must afford that decision "great deference." (Among the issues in the Dessart case was whether a search warrant was supported by probable cause.) Judge Posner acknowledged that the standard comes from a Supreme Court decisions holding that "[a] magistrate's determination of probable cause should be paid great deference by reviewing courts," but questioned it nonetheless. First, he questioned why "great" deference should be afforded to such decisions since "warrants [are] usually issued by the most junior judicial officers – and often police or prosecutors can shop among magistrates for one who is certain or almost certain to respond affirmatively to a request to issue a warrant." Second, Judge Posner noted that "[n]othing in the [Fourth] amendment requires warrants – ever," therefore it was not fair, in Judge Posner's opinion, to conclude, as is often concluded, that the Constitution expresses a preference for searches conducted pursuant to warrants or to afford great deference to a trial court's decision to issue one.

Continue reading ““Here’s the mail it never fails . . . :” Judge Posner Criticizes “Rhetorical Envelopes” In Which Judicial Opinions Are “Delivered To The Reader””

Enforcement Action Against Rating Agency Allowed To Proceed

        by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

In an interesting decision issued today, Judge Katz (Essex County) denied a motion to dismiss filed by the ratings agency Standard & Poor's ("S&P") in an enforcement action brought against S&P by the New Jersey Attorney General. In Hoffman v. McGraw-Hill Financial, Inc., the Attorney General alleged that S&P violated the Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") by misrepresenting to New Jersey consumers that S&P's analysis and rating of structured finance securities was independent and objective. The opinion contains decisions on both procedural personal jurisdiction issues and substantive CFA issues that all litigators should find interesting.

[Lawsuits against ratings agencies are nothing new. Several years ago, I wrote an article about these lawsuits and, at the time, the relative success the rating agencies had defending against them. (If you did not save your copy of the article, click here for another copy.) Historically, the rating agencies argued that their ratings were proetced under the First Amendment, but at least one court rejected this argument in the context of a motion to dismiss in a lawsuit that eventually settled.]

 

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Victory For Commercial Affordable Housing

by:  Katharine A. Muscalino

Private commercial developers have struggled to install affordable housing in New Jersey’s municipalities for decades, facing opposition from communities, local governments, and the municipal zoning boards.  The Appellate Division has just eased the burden of private developers by holding, for the first time explicitly, that affordable housing built by a commercial developer (as opposed to a non-profit or public entity) qualifies as an “inherently beneficial use” in Conifer Realty LLC v. Township of Middle Zoning Board of Adjustment (September 9, 2011).  By being categorized as an inherently beneficial use, commercial affordable housing is subject to a less stringent standard for obtaining use variance relief.  In support of this holding, the Appellate division noted that the courts have previously recognized that affordable housing is an inherently beneficial use in a “variety of circumstances” and that housing needs are “clearly related to the general welfare under the zoning laws.”

The Appellate Division found that the zoning board construed previous opinions holding that affordable housing is an inherently beneficial use too narrowly.  The board had maintained that because all existing caselaw had addressed affordable housing constructed by public of non-profit entities, a commercial developer’s affordable housing could not qualify as an inherently beneficial use.  The Court directed that in analyzing whether a proposed use is inherently beneficial, “the focus of the inquiry is whether the proposal furthers the general welfare, not whether the undertaking is one that is not-for-profit or a commercial enterprise.”

In addition to remanding the application to the Board for consideration under the less stringent inherently beneficial use standard (the Sica test), the Appellate Division found the Board’s concerns regarding the negative criteria to be arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.  The Appellate Division noted that the Board’s rejection of the application, base on density and environmental concerns, was contradicted by the Township’s Fair Share plan, which included the project, minimized the environmental impact, and promised to amend the zoning and density for the project.

Ignoring The 800 Pound Elephant Is OK! Wal-Mart Need Not Be Identified As Tenant In Public Notice For Planning Board Application

by:  Matthew J. Schiller

In Shakoor Supermarkets, Inc. v. Old Bridge Township Planning Board, the Appellate Division concluded that an applicant proposing to construct a 150,000 square foot Wal-Mart Superstore need not specify that the occupant of the retail space would be a Wal-Mart.  Rather, the Appellate Division deemed that the published public notice gave an accurate description of the property’s proposed use under the application and that technical details need not be provided. 

The objector challenged the Planning Board approval citing Perlmart of Lacey, Inc. v. Lacey Twp. Planning Bd., 295 N.J. Super. 234, 234 (App. Div. 1996), in which the Appellate Division deemed a public notice for a proposed K-Mart insufficient.  The Appellate Division in Perlmart stated that “while the notice informed that certain variances and minor and major site plan approvals were being sought ‘for the creation of commercial lots’ in a commercial zone, it does not tell the public of the nature of that use, i.e., a conditional use K-Mart shopping center.”  The Appellate Division disagreed with the objector in Shakoor, stating that Perlmart did not hold that it was necessary for the applicant to actually identify K-Mart as the retailer in its application, but rather, that a notice should provide a “common sense description of the nature of the application, such that the ordinary layperson could understand its potential impact upon him or her.”  The notice need not be “exhaustive” to support this standard.

The notice at issue in Shakoor identified the proposed use as “a main retail store of 150,000 s.f.”    The Appellate Division concluded that the description adequately informed laypersons that a major “big box” store was proposed for the site and alerted them to possible concerns, such as traffic, commonly associated with those stores, and that such concerns were expressed at the hearings by members of the public.  Further, the Appellate Division concluded that the multiple proposed retail uses did not constitute a legitimate cause for “heightened concern” to the public that would require a more in depth description beyond those associated with a 150,000 square foot retail store.

Therefore, so long as a proposed use is described in terms that permit ordinary laypersons to understand how the property will be used and sufficiently alerted as to its potential impact upon him or her, it will likely be deemed sufficient.