Justia Contracts Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey

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In April 2007, Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada received an application for a $5 million insurance policy on the life of Nancy Bergman. The application listed a trust as the sole owner and beneficiary of the policy. Bergman’s grandson signed as trustee; the other members of the trust were all investors, and all strangers to Bergman. The investors paid most if not all of the policy’s premiums. Sun Life issued the policy. About five weeks after the policy was issued, the grandson resigned as trustee and appointed the investors as successor co-trustees. The trust agreement was amended so that most of the policy’s benefits would go to the investors, who were also empowered to sell the policy. More than two years later, the trust sold the policy and the investors received nearly all of the proceeds from the sale. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. eventually obtained the policy in a bankruptcy settlement and continued to pay the premiums. After Bergman passed away in 2014, Wells Fargo sought to collect the policy’s death benefit. Sun Life investigated the claim, uncovered discrepancies, and declined to pay. Instead, Sun Life sought a declaratory judgment that the policy was void ab initio, or from the beginning. Wells Fargo counterclaimed for breach of contract and sought the policy’s $5 million face value; if the court voided the policy, Wells Fargo sought a refund of the premiums it paid. The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey partially granted Sun Life’s motion for summary judgment, finding New Jersey law applied and concluded “that this was a STOLI [(stranger-originated life insurance)] transaction lacking insurable interest in violation of [the State’s] public policy. . . . As such, it should be declared void ab initio.” The court also granted Wells Fargo’s motion to recover its premium payments, reasoning that “Wells Fargo is not to blame for the fraud here” and that “[a]llowing Sun Life to retain the premiums would be a windfall to the company.” Both parties appealed. Finding no dispositive New Jersey case law, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified two questions of law to the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding the Sun Life policy. In response to the certified questions, the Supreme Court found that STOLI policies were against public policy and void ab initio. The Court also noted that a party may be entitled to a refund of premium payments depending on the circumstances. “Among other relevant factors, courts should consider a later purchaser’s participation in and knowledge of the original illicit scheme.” View "Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A." on Justia Law

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At issue were claims of fraudulent sales practices by two car dealerships that allegedly induced consumers to enter into agreements for the purchase of cars. The question presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review was whether plaintiffs could avoid being compelled to arbitrate those claims. Plaintiffs challenged the formation and validity of their sales agreements on the bases that the dealerships’ fraudulent practices and misrepresentations induced them to sign the transactional documents and that the agreements were invalid due to violations of statutory consumer fraud requirements. As part of the overall set of documents, plaintiffs signed arbitration agreements. Those agreements contained straightforward and conspicuous language that broadly delegated arbitrability issues. Each trial court determined the arbitration agreements to be enforceable and entered orders compelling plaintiffs to litigate their various claims challenging the overall validity of the sales contracts in the arbitral forum. The Appellate Division reversed those orders. The Supreme Court reversed: “the trial courts’ resolution of these matters was correct and consistent with clear rulings from the United States Supreme Court that bind state and federal courts on how challenges such as plaintiffs’ should proceed. Those rulings do not permit threshold issues about overall contract validity to be resolved by the courts when the arbitration agreement itself is not specifically challenged. Here, plaintiffs attack the sales contracts in their entirety, not the language or clarity of the agreements to arbitrate or the broad delegation clauses contained in those signed arbitration agreements.” View "Goffe v. Foulke Management Corp." on Justia Law

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In this appeal, plaintiffs, an individual and his limited liability towing company, entered into a contract for the purchase of a customized medium-duty 4x4 truck with autoloader tow unit. Ultimately, the truck did not perform as expected and plaintiffs filed suit. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review centered on whether determine whether New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act (CFA or the Act) covered the transaction as a sale of “merchandise.” The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division that the trial court took too narrow an approach in assessing what constituted "merchandise" under the remedial CFA. The customized tow truck and rig fit within the CFA’s expansive definition of “merchandise” and, therefore, plaintiff’s CFA claim should not have foundered based on an application of that term. Furthermore, the Court agreed with the appellate panel’s remand to the trial court for a determination of whether defendants’ other bases for seeking summary judgment were meritorious. View "All The Way Towing, LLC v. Bucks County International, Inc." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Amanda Kernahan purchased a “home service agreement” from defendants Home Warranty Administrator of Florida, Inc., and Choice Home Warranty. When she became dissatisfied, she filed a complaint in Superior Court seeking statutory and common law relief. Plaintiff claimed that the agreement misrepresented its length of coverage and that the deceptively labelled “MEDIATION” section of the agreement failed to inform her that she was waiving her right to a jury trial and would be deterred from seeking the additional remedies of treble damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees and costs. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint with prejudice in favor of arbitration, citing the "mediation" provision. The trial court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss, concluding that the arbitration provision was unenforceable. The court found the provision both ambiguous and noncompliant with Atalese v. U.S. Legal Services Group, L.P., 219 N.J. 430 (2014), “in either its form or its function.” The court subsequently denied defendants’ motion for reconsideration, rejecting defendants’ argument that language stating that all claims will be resolved “exclusively” by arbitration would or should have adequately informed plaintiff that she is waiving her right to proceed in court, as opposed to use of other available dispute resolution processes. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s refusal to dismiss the complaint, and the New Jersey Supreme Court also affirmed. View "Kernahan v. Home Warranty Administrator of Florida, Inc." on Justia Law

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This appeal stemmed from plaintiff Lucia Serico’s motion for attorney’s fees and other litigation expenses pursuant to Rule 4:58 after a jury trial on medical malpractice claims against Robert Rothberg, M.D. At issue was whether Serico could collect attorney’s fees from Rothberg despite entering into a “high-low agreement” that limited the amount she could recover at trial to $1,000,000. Based on the expressed intent of the parties and the context of the agreement, the New Jersey Supreme Court found the agreement set $1,000,000 as the maximum recovery. Therefore, Serico could not seek additional litigation expenses allowed by Rule 4:58. View "Serico v. Rothberg" on Justia Law

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Third-party defendant Dr. George Likakis was charged with aggravated arson and insurance fraud after a fire destroyed a building he owned (the Property). Plaintiff RSI Bank held a first-priority mortgage on the Property, and defendant/third-party plaintiff The Providence Mutual Fire Insurance Company (Providence) issued a commercial liability policy that covered the Property. Following the fire, Likakis and RSI Bank submitted insurance claims. Providence denied both sets of claims. Providence’s denial of coverage prompted the filing of two actions in the Law Division: (1) filed by Likakis against Providence; and (2) an action gave rise to this appeal: RSI Bank’s claims against Providence for breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, violations of the Consumer Fraud Act, and bad faith. Providence filed a third-party complaint against Likakis, alleging claims for indemnification. Both civil lawsuits were pending when criminal proceedings commenced against Likakis. Likakis was indicted; Providence did not object to Likakis’ admission to the PTI program, provided he paid restitution, committed to protect/compensate Providence from all claims that might be brought by RSI, and dismissal of Likakis’ suit against Providence. With Likakis’s consent - but no assessment of his ability to pay - the court also imposed the three conditions that Providence had requested. During his PTI term, Likakis paid Providence the specific restitution amount and dismissed with prejudice his lawsuit. Likakis did not make any payment related to the separate indemnification provision. With the prosecutor’s consent, the PTI court terminated Likakis’s PTI supervision and dismissed his indictment. RSI Bank and Providence settled their coverage dispute. Providence agreed to pay RSI Bank to settle all of the bank’s claims based on the insurance policy and moved for summary judgment against Likakis based on the provision of the PTI agreement. The court held that the indemnification provision of the PTI agreement was enforceable against Likakis and ordered Likakis to pay Providence the portion of the settlement funds Providence attributed to fire damage, less the amount Likakis had paid during his PTI supervisory period. Likakis appealed, and an Appellate Division panel affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding an open-ended agreement to indemnify the victim of the participant’s alleged offense for unspecified future losses was not an appropriate condition of PTI. Moreover, a restitution condition of PTI was inadmissible as evidence in a subsequent civil proceeding against the PTI participant. The indemnification provision of the PTI agreement at issue should have played no role in this civil litigation. View "RSI Bank v. The Providence Mutual Fire Insurance Company" on Justia Law

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This appeal involved questions about the insurance coverage available to defendant Honeywell International, Inc. (Honeywell) for thousands of bodily-injury claims premised on exposure to brake and clutch pads (friction products) containing asbestos. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification to address two issues: (1) whether the law of New Jersey or Michigan (the headquarters location of Honeywell’s predecessor when the disputed excess insurance policies were issued) should control in the allocation of insurance liability among insurers for nationwide products-liability claims; and (2) whether it was error not to require the policyholder, Honeywell, to contribute in the allocation of insurance liability based on the time after which the relevant coverage became unavailable in the marketplace (that is, since 1987). The Supreme Court determined New Jersey law on the allocation of liability among insurers applied in this matter, and the Court set forth the pertinent choice-of-law principles to resolve this dispute over insurance coverage for numerous products-liability claims. Concerning the second question, on these facts, the Court also affirmed the determination to follow the unavailability exception to the continuous-trigger method of allocation set forth in Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. United Ins. Co., 138 N.J. 437 (1994). View "Continental Insurance Company v. Honeywell International, Inc." on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified two questions of New Jersey law to the New Jersey Supreme Court arising from two putative class actions brought under the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA). Plaintiffs David and Katina Spade claimed that on or about April 25, 2013, they purchased furniture from a retail store owned and operated by defendant Select Comfort Corporation. They alleged that Select Comfort’s sales contract included the language prohibited by N.J.A.C. 13:45A-5.3(c). The Spades also alleged the sales contract that Select Comfort provided to them did not include language mandated by N.J.A.C. 13:45A-5.2(a) and N.J.A.C. 13:45A-5.3(a). The Third Circuit asked: (1) whether a violation of the Furniture Delivery Regulations alone constituted a violation of a clearly established right or responsibility of the seller under the TCCWNA and thus provided a basis for relief under the TCCWNA; and (2) whether a consumer who receives a contract that does not comply with the Furniture Delivery Regulations, but has not suffered any adverse consequences from the noncompliance, an “aggrieved consumer” under the TCCWNA? The New Jersey Supreme Court answered the first certified question in the affirmative and the second certified question in the negative. View "Spade v. Select Comfort Corp." on Justia Law

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Defendant Horizon Healthcare Services, Inc., New Jersey’s largest health insurer, maintained a two-tiered provider-hospital system. Plaintiff Saint Peter’s University Hospital, Inc., and plaintiff Capital Health System, Inc. and others, commenced separate lawsuits claiming Horizon treated them unfairly and in a manner that contravened their agreements when they were placed in the less advantageous Tier 2. Plaintiffs assert Horizon’s tiering procedures were pre-fitted or wrongfully adjusted to guarantee selection of certain larger hospitals for the preferential Tier 1. The New Jersey Supreme Court was asked, by way of interlocutory appeal, to settle multiple discovery disputes that arose in the course of the litigation. The Supreme Court concluded the Appellate Division exceeded the limits imposed by the standard of appellate review both by assessing the disputed information’s relevance against the panel’s own disapproving view of the merits and by giving no apparent weight or consideration to the protections afforded by confidentiality orders. Having closely examined the record, the Supreme Court rejected the Appellate Division’s determination that the chancery judges encharged with these matters abused their discretion. It was not an abuse of discretion for the chancery judges to find the information sought was relevant to plaintiffs’ claims that Horizon violated either the network hospital agreements’ contractual terms, or the overarching implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, when they were relegated to the less desirable Tier 2. View "Capital Health System, Inc. v. Horizon Healthcare Services, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 1983, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed a final consent judgment for a settlement agreement between the New Jersey State Bar Association and the New Jersey Association of Realtor Boards. The terms of the settlement provided that real estate brokers and salespersons may prepare contracts to sell or lease real property, so long as a standard form is used that includes a three-day period for attorney review. Plaintiffs Michael Conley, Jr., and Katie M. Maurer (Buyers) made an offer to purchase a condominium from defendant Mona Guerrero (Seller), and, a few days later, Seller signed and executed the contract. Before the three-day attorney-review period expired, Seller s attorney sent Buyers attorney and their realtor notice of disapproval by e-mail and fax, rather than by the methods approved under the 1983 holding and prescribed in the parties' contract (certified mail, telegram, or personal service). Buyers sued for specific performance, claiming the contract was enforceable because Seller s notification of disapproval was sent improperly. At issue before the Supreme Court was whether the attorney-review provision of a standard form real estate contract had to be strictly enforced, thereby nullifying Seller's notice of disapproval and requiring enforcement of the real estate contract. The Court concluded that, because Buyers received actual notice of disapproval within the three-day attorney-review period by a method of communication commonly used in the industry, the notice of disapproval was valid. The Court also exercised its constitutional authority over the practice of law and found that an attorney's notice of disapproval of a real estate contract could be transmitted by fax, e-mail, personal delivery, or overnight mail with proof of delivery. Notice by overnight mail will be effective upon mailing. The attorney-review period within which this notice must be sent remained three business days. View "Conley v. Guerrero" on Justia Law