Let Sleeping Dogs Lie . . . Just Not In A Hallway Where They Might Create A Dangerous Condition?

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

Sleeping dog (pd)When is a sleeping dog a dangerous condition? This is the burning question that the Appellate Division answered in Parella v. Compeau.

In Parella, plaintiff attended Christmas dinner at a friend's house along with approximately 20 other guests. After the second course, she got up from her chair to put her dish in the kitchen sink and check on her child who was in an another room. To do so, she had to walk behind several seated guests. She did not have to ask anyone to move until she got to the last guest in the row. That guest moved her chair in and plaintiff made a move familiar to anyone who has been to a crowded holiday dinner — she "lifted [her] glass and plate, turned her back to the wall and shuffled her feet to pass behind [the] chair." "As she cleared the chair, plaintiff turned right to enter the hall toward the kitchen, and fell." 

What caused her fall was a "tan, fairly large dog" that was "lying in the hallway, past the threshold of the dining room." The dog did not belong to defendants, the owners of the house and the hosts of the party, and was one of two dogs in the house for the party. When plaintiff fell, the wine glass she was holding broke, cutting her finger and severing a tendon. Plaintiff sued, alleging that defendants failed to warn of her of a dangerous condition — the dog — in their home. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants and plaintiff appealed.

Continue reading “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie . . . Just Not In A Hallway Where They Might Create A Dangerous Condition?”

Federal Judge Strikes Down “Flying Spaghetti Monster” (Or At Least A Prisoner’s Claims About His Ability To Worship The “Flying Spaghetti Monster”)

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

Spaghetti monster(pd)When appointments are made to the U.S. Supreme Court there is often much talk about the potential justice’s “paper trail” — the articles, briefs, or, if the candidate is already a judge, opinions he or she has written. If Judge John M. Gerrard of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska is ever fortunate enough to be appointed to the Supreme Court, I hope that someone questions him about his recent opinion in Cavanaugh v. Bartelt. The decision does not provide much insight into his “judicial temperament” or his position on any hot button social issues that might come before the Supreme Court. It is just a well written and — not to  sound too geeky — enormously entertaining opinion to read.

Cavanaugh was a lawsuit filed by a prisoner in a Nebraska prison who claimed to be a “‘Pastafarian,’ i.e., a believer in the divine ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’ who practices the religion of ‘FSMism’.” Plaintiff sued prison officials, claiming they were not accommodating his religious requests. Judge Gerrard concluded that FSMism was not a religion under the law, but was instead “a parody, intended to advance an argument about science, the evolution of life, and the place of religion in public education.” While he acknowledged that these were “important issues and FSMism contains a serious argument,” he held that FSMism was “not entitled to protection as a religion.”

Before addressing the legal issues presented by the complaint, Judge Gerrard provided a brief and entertaining history of FSMism. Because it developed as a response to “intelligent design,” Judge Gerrard traced the debate over teaching evolution in public schools from the adoption of state laws banning the teaching of evolution, to the Supreme Court’s rejection of those laws, to the adoption of state laws requiring that schools teach both evolution and “creation science,” to the Supreme Court’s rejection of “creation science” under the Establishment Clause, to the rise of “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution. Proponents of “intelligent design” claim that the “Earth’s ecosystem displays complexity suggesting intelligent design by a ‘master intellect.” They try to avoid the Establish Clause issues that brought down “creation science” by not expressly identifying the “master intellect” as a deity.

 

Continue reading “Federal Judge Strikes Down “Flying Spaghetti Monster” (Or At Least A Prisoner’s Claims About His Ability To Worship The “Flying Spaghetti Monster”)”

New Jersey Supreme Court To Hear Appeal In Case Involving Defense Counsel That “Friended” Plaintiff On Facebook

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

Earlier this year, I posted about an ethics grievance that was filed against a defense attorney whose paralegal "friended" a plaintiff on Facebook, which allowed the defense to gain access to information that could be used to impeach the plaintiff at trial. (Click here for my original post.) The Appellate Division decision that was the subject of that post had less to do with the substance of the grievance — whether it was unethical to do what the paralegal did — and more about the strange procedural history of the grievance.

The Secretary of the local Ethics Committee originally refused to docket the grievance (which the Secretary is allowed to do if the Secretary, in consultation with a public member of the Ethics Committee, makes an initial determination that no ethics rules were violated), but plaintiff then went to the Director of the Office of Attorney Ethics ("OAE") with more information and convinced the OAE to investigate. Defense counsel argued that this violated the so-called “no appeal” portion of the New Jersey Court Rules, which prohibits appeals from decisions declining to docket ethics grievances. Defense counsel made this argument in a complaint that he filed in the Chancery Division, but the complaint was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because, according to the trial court and the Appellate Division, the New Jersey Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over matters involving the disciplining of attorneys.

Now the New Jersey Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case to resolve the following question:

Does the Director of the Office of Attorney Ethics have the authority to proceed with a grievance after a District Ethics Committee Secretary (with concurrence by a designated public member) has declined a grievance, pursuant to Rule 1:20-3(e)(3)?

As I mentioned in my prior post, it seems like the more interesting question is whether defense counsel's conduct was unethical, but we will not get an answer to this question until the New Jersey Supreme Court clears up this  procedural issue.And, we will not get an answer at all if the New Jersey Supreme Court agrees with defense counsel and finds that it was improper for the OAE to investigate the grievance after the Secretary of the Ethics Committee refused to docket it.

Stay tuned for more on this case.

Ethics Grievance Against Defense Lawyer Who “Friended” Plaintiff Will Continue

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher)

Recent reports have suggested that Facebook is no longer seen as “cool” among teens and other millennials because, among other things, their parents are on Facebook, so how can it possibly be “cool”? Well, with all apologies to Mark Zuckerberg, this post may be the death knell for Facebook’s coolness because this is the second time in the past few months that I am writing about Facebook. (The other article, which discussed the implications of judges being “friends” with attorneys, can be found here.) If parents being on Facebook is reason enough for it not to be “cool,” a lawyer blogging about it somewhat regularly probably removes any last vestiges of coolness.  

With that being said . . . A recent Appellate Division decision, Robertelli v. The New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics, will allow an ethics investigation involving a law firm employee’s use of Facebook to obtain information about a plaintiff in a pending personal injury lawsuit to continue. The issue faced by the Appellate Division – which is discussed below – did not involve the question of whether using Facebook to investigate another party in a pending lawsuit is unethical. But, since the case will now continue, we might get a decision on this underlying issue soon, so this case is worth watching. Other jurisdictions have dealt with similar issues and have usually found the conduct to be violative of the Rules of Professional Conduct. For example, the Philadelphia Bar Association found, in a similar situation, that the attorney’s conduct violated RPC 8.4 (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation) and RPC 4.1 (truthfulness in statements to others). Similarly, the San Diego Bar Association found that an attorney’s use of Facebook to “friend” potentially dissatisfied high-ranking employees at an employer that his client was suing violated RPC 4.2 (communicating with a person represented by counsel). With the grievance in Robertelli, New Jersey’s Disciplinary Review Board and Supreme Court may soon weigh in on the issue as well.

Continue reading “Ethics Grievance Against Defense Lawyer Who “Friended” Plaintiff Will Continue”

Tenants Who Don’t Act Quickly On Claims For Breach Of Implied Warranty of Habitability Risk Being Left Out In The Cold

by:  Gregory S. Ricciardi

On May 15, 2012, the Appellate Division handed down its decision in Vitiello v. Marques, a commercial landlord tenant dispute.  The case involved a claim for constructive eviction, wherein the Plaintiff alleged that the leased premises was “exceptionally cold” as a result of a failing heater and cracked window frames, all of which the Landlord allegedly refused to repair.  As a result of the cold, the Plaintiff declared that the premises were uninhabitable, except that the tenant waited until the summer to actually vacate the premises.   The trial judge ruled and the appellate division affirmed that Plaintiff failed to establish the “factual predicate for constructive eviction.”   Relying on Reste Realty Corp. v. Cooper, the benchmark New Jersey Supreme Court Case on constructive eviction, the court reasoned that the plaintiff failed to prove that the Landlord’s conduct substantially interfered with the tenant’s use and enjoyment of the premises, such that departure from the property was justified. The second element of a constructive eviction claim is that the tenant must actually vacate the premises within a reasonable time after the conditions rendering the property inhabitable arise.

The takeaway for tenants in this case is to act quickly and decisively  if constructive eviction is the basis for which the tenant withholds rent or seeks to terminate a lease.  Hollow complaints and chilly inconvenience are no match for a well drafted, landlord protective lease.  Although the failure of a HVAC system may be the basis for a constructive eviction claim, do not wait until the summer to vacate the premises because the heat is not working, unless of course you live in Alaska.