NJ Supreme Court Narrowly Defines “Aggrieved Consumer.” End Of The Road For One Type Of “No Injury” Class Action?

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

Contract(pd)
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.  

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NJ Court: Agreement To Arbitrate “Any Claims” Does Not Include Agreement To Arbitrate Statutory Claims

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

Arbitration (pd)In recent months I have written several times about the difficulty of enforcing arbitration agreements in New Jersey (e.g., here, here, and here). While the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Kindred Nursing Centers v. Clark has some people confident that this will change, it hasn't yet. Instead, New Jersey courts continue to issue opinions demonstrating the uphill battle faced by parties trying to enforce contractual arbitration provisions. A recent unpublished Law Division opinion, Griffoul v. NRG Residential Solar Solutions, LLC, is the latest example.

In Griffoul, plaintiffs entered into a lease for a residential solar system. The lease contained a "broad form arbitration clause" in which plaintiffs agreed to arbitrate "any" claim "arising out of" or "in connection with" the lease, and agreed that, by entering into the lease, plaintiffs were waiving their right to a jury trial. The lease also contained a class action waiver provision, declaring that "each party may bring claims against the other only in its individual capacity and not as a plaintiff or a class member in any purported class or representative proceeding."

Nonetheless, just over three years after entering into the lease, plaintiffs filed a putative class action in state court. The complaint asserted the now-common one-two punch of claims under the Consumer Fraud Act ("CFA") and the Truth in Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act ("TCCWNA"). The CFA claims were based on alleged misrepresentations made by defendants in connection with the marketing of the solar energy system, and the TCCWNA claims were based on six provisions of the lease that plaintiffs claimed violated clearly established rights under New Jersey law. 

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You Can’t Cross Examine A Map!

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

Drug free zone (pd)In a case decided earlier last week, State v. Wilson, the New Jersey Supreme Court answered an interesting Constitutional Law question: Whether the admission into evidence of a map showing the designated 500-foot  "drug free zone" around a public park violated an accused's right, under both the U.S. Constitution and New Jersey Constitution, to be "confronted with the witnesses against him." The court held that maps like this do not violate the Confrontation Clause and, if properly authenticated, are admissible. The problem in Wilson, however, was that the map was not properly authenticated as a public record, therefore it was inadmissible hearsay. 

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that, "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with the witnesses against him." The New Jersey Constitution contains an almost identical provision. "The Confrontation Clause affords a procedural guarantee that the reliability of evidence will be tested 'in a particular manner' through the crucible of cross-examination." As interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Confrontation Clause provides that a "testimonial statement against a defendant by a non-testifying witness is inadmissible . . . unless the witness is unavailable and the defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine him or her." The threshold issue, therefore, is whether a statement is "testimonial."

The U.S. Supreme Court has "labored to flesh out what it means for a statement to be 'testimonial.'" It eventually arrived at the "primary purpose" test, which asks whether a statement has the primary purpose of "establishing or proving past events potentially relevant to a later criminal prosecution." If it does, then it is testimonial. If not, then it is not. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that statements made to police to assist them in responding to an "ongoing emergency," rather than to create a record for a future prosecution, are not testimonial. 

The New Jersey Supreme Court has wrestled with this "primary purpose" test as well. For example, in one case, police sent a defendant's blood to a private laboratory after a fatal car crash. Approximately 14 analysts performed a variety of tests on the blood. A supervisor at the lab then wrote a report concluding that the defendant's blood contained traces of cocaine and other drugs and that this "would have caused the defendant to be impaired an unfit to operate a motor vehicle." The State sought to admit the report, or statements from it, into evidence. The court refused, holding that the report was testimonial because its primary purpose was to "serve as a direct accusation against the defendant." Similarly, the court held, in a separate case, that the statements in an autopsy report were testimonial because the autopsy was conducted after a homicide investigation had begun, after the defendant was a suspect, and after he had spoken to police, and because the autopsy was conducted in the presence of the lead State investigator. Thus, the court held, the "primary purpose of the report was to establish facts for later use in the prosecution."

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In Case You Ever Find Yourself Fighting With Your Wife Over Your Ferraris . . .

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

Ferrari (pd)Right. I never do either. But if you do (or think you might in the future) then you might want to know about Durrani v. Wide World of Cars. In that case, plaintiff sued a car dealership and her ex-husband's former lawyers for delivering two Ferraris to her ex-husband, allegedly in violation of an order entered in their divorce action.

As the trial court described it, when plaintiff and her ex-husband were married, they lived an "extravagant lifestyle." Among other things,  they owned "twenty-five luxury cars worth approximately one million dollars, boats and properties." Of these assets, however, plaintiff was only on the title of two cars (and not the Ferraris). Nonetheless, during their divorce proceeding, plaintiff sought "exclusive possession" of the Ferraris, which were titled and registered to her ex-husband and stored at the defendant dealership's facilities. Consistent with this claim, plaintiff's counsel sent a letter to the dealership requesting that it not release or transfer the Ferraris to anyone, including plaintiff's ex-husband, and threatening to hold the dealership liable for damages if it did. At the end of the letter, counsel asked the dealership to agree to abide by the demand and indicated that if it did not agree, plaintiff would "immediately seek to serve [the dealership] with a court order." The dealership did not respond.

Around the same time plaintiff's counsel sent this letter, the family part entered an order in the divorce proceeding preventing either party from dissipating, selling, etc. any assets of the marriage, and specifically identified the Ferraris in a list of assets to which this restraint applied. Plaintiff's counsel sent a copy of the order to the dealership, purportedly placing it on notice of the terms.

 

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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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