Justia Contracts Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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The issue this appeal presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court’s review centered on an exclusionary clause in a commercial general liability insurance policy issued by Admiral Insurance Company (Admiral) to Richfield Window Coverings, LLC (Richfield). Richfield sold window coverage products, including blinds, to national retailers like Home Depot and provided retailers with machines to cut the blinds to meet the specifications of the retailers’ customers. Colleen Lorito, an employee of a Home Depot located in Nassau County, was injured while operating the blind cutting machine. She and her husband filed a civil action against Richfield, asserting claims for product liability, breach of warranty, and loss of spousal services. Admiral denied any obligation to defend or indemnify, asserting the claims were not covered under the policy based on the Designated New York Counties Exclusion of the insurance policy. Richfield filed a declaratory judgment action seeking to compel Admiral to defend it in the Lorito case and, if necessary, indemnify it against any monetary damages awarded to the plaintiffs. The Law Division granted summary judgment in favor of Admiral. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that “Richfield’s limited activities and operations have no causal relationship to the causes of action or allegations.” The Supreme Court found that the policy’s broad and unambiguous language made clear that a causal relationship was not required in order for the exclusionary clause to apply; rather, any claim “in any way connected with” the insured’s operations or activities in a county identified in the exclusionary clause was not covered under the policy. Richfield’s operations in an excluded county were alleged to be connected with the injuries for which recovery was sought, so the exclusion applied. Admiral had no duty to defend a claim that it is not contractually obligated to indemnify. View "Norman International, Inc. v. Admiral Insurance Company " on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Crystal Point Condominium Association, Inc. obtained default judgments against two entities for construction defect claims. Kinsale Insurance Company was alleged to have insured those entities, under the Direct Action Statute, N.J.S.A. 17:28-2. The relevant policies both contained an arbitration agreement providing in part that “[a]ll disputes over coverage or any rights afforded under this Policy . . . shall be submitted to binding Arbitration.” Crystal Point filed a declaratory judgment action against Kinsale, alleging that it was entitled to recover the amounts owed by the entities under the insurance policies issued by Kinsale. Kinsale asserted that Crystal Point’s claims were subject to binding arbitration in accordance with the insurance policies. Kinsale argued that the Direct Action Statute did not apply because Crystal Point had not demonstrated that neither entity was insolvent or bankrupt. In the alternative, Kinsale contended that even if the statute were to apply, it would not preclude enforcement of the arbitration provisions in the policies. The trial court granted Kinsale’s motion to compel arbitration, viewing the Direct Action Statute to be inapplicable because there was no evidence in the record that either insured was insolvent or bankrupt. An appellate court reversed the trial court’s judgment, finding the evidence that the writs of execution were unsatisfied met the Direct Action Statute’s requirement that the claimant present proof of the insured’s insolvency or bankruptcy and determining that the Direct Action Statute authorized Crystal Point’s claims against Kinsale. The appellate court concluded the arbitration clause in Kinsale’s insurance policies did not warrant the arbitration of Crystal Point’s claims, so it reinstated the complaint and remanded for further proceedings. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined Crystal Point could assert direct claims against Kinsale pursuant to the Direct Action Statute in the setting of this case. Based on the plain language of N.J.S.A. 17:28-2, however, Crystal Point’s claims against Kinsale were derivative claims, and were thus subject to the terms of the insurance policies at issue, including the provision in each policy mandating binding arbitration of disputes between Kinsale and its insureds. Crystal Point’s claims against Kinsale were therefore subject to arbitration. View "Crystal Point Condominium Association, Inc. v. Kinsale Insurance Company " on Justia Law

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Defendant Mengxi Liu, the successful bidder in a real estate auction conducted by defendant Max Spann Real Estate and Auction Co. (Max Spann), asserted as a defense to the seller’s breach of contract action that the contract she signed to purchase the property was void and unenforceable. In her appeal of the trial court’s judgment finding her in breach of her contract, Liu argued that the agreement was unenforceable because a licensed real estate salesperson employed by Max Spann wrote her name and address as the buyer and purchase price information on blank spaces in a template sales contract following the auction. Liu contended that this activity constituted the unauthorized practice of law because the contract did not provide for the three-day attorney review period as mandated by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed with the Appellate Division that a residential real estate sale by absolute auction was distinct from a traditional real estate transaction in which a buyer and seller negotiate the contract price and other terms and memorialize their agreement in a contract. In an absolute auction or an auction without reserve, the owner unconditionally offers the property for sale and the highest bid creates a final and enforceable contract at the auction’s conclusion, subject to applicable contract defenses. “Were we to impose the three-day attorney review prescribed in [the controlling case law] on residential real estate sales conducted by absolute auction, we would fundamentally interfere with the method by which buyers and sellers choose to conduct such sales.” The Court found no unauthorized practice of law in this case and held that the contract signed by Liu was valid and enforceable. View "Sullivan v. Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Kathleen Moynihan and defendant Edward Lynch were involved in a long-term “marital-style relationship.” Anticipating the potential dissolution of that relationship, they signed and notarized a written agreement, without the assistance of counsel, that finalized the financial obligations each owed to the other. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was the validity of that palimony agreement. In 2015, the parties parted ways, and Lynch refused to abide by their written agreement. Moynihan filed a complaint seeking enforcement of the written agreement and an alleged oral palimony agreement that she claimed the parties had entered before the Legislature in 2010 amended N.J.S.A. 25:1-5 to include subparagraph (h), which mandated that palimony agreements be reduced to writing and “made with the independent advice of counsel.” She challenged N.J.S.A. 25:1-5(h) on constitutional grounds and urged enforcement as a typical contract; alternatively, she sought enforcement of the agreement on equitable grounds. Lynch denied the existence of an oral palimony agreement and asserted that the written agreement was unenforceable because the parties did not receive the independent advice of counsel before entering it. The Supreme Court concluded the palimony agreement, as written and signed, without the attorney review requirement, was enforceable. That portion of N.J.S.A. 25:1-5(h), which imposed an attorney-review requirement to enforce a palimony agreement, contravenes Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution. The Court concluded the parties did not enter an oral palimony agreement. View "Moynihan v. Lynch" on Justia Law

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In September 2016, defendant Trend Motors, Ltd. (Trend), provided defendant Mary Aquilar with a loaner vehicle for her personal use while her vehicle was being serviced. Aquilar’s negligent operation of the loaner vehicle caused it to strike plaintiff Tyrone Huggins’s car. Huggins sustained serious injuries as a result. GEICO insured Aquilar through an automobile policy. Trend held a garage policy with Federal Insurance Company (Federal) that insured Trend’s vehicles for up to $1,000,000 in liability coverage. The definition of an “insured” in the Federal policy purported to extend liability coverage to Trend’s customers using Trend’s vehicles only if the customer lacked the minimum insurance required by law. Huggins filed a complaint seeking compensation for the injuries and loss of income he suffered as a result of the accident. Federal disclaimed liability, arguing that Aquilar did not fit the policy’s definition of an insured because she held $15,000 in bodily injury coverage through GEICO. The trial court held that the Federal policy’s definition of an insured constituted an illegal escape clause and held Federal to the full policy limit of $1,000,000 in liability coverage. The Appellate Division declined to review the trial court’s ruling. The New Jersey Supreme Court concurred with the trial court’s ruling that the provision in the garage policy at issue constituted an illegal escape clause which could not be used to evade the minimum liability requirements for dealership vehicles set by the Chief Administrator of the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC). The Court ordered the reformation of Federal’s policy to the $100,000/$250,000 dealer-licensure minimum liability coverage required by N.J.A.C. 13:21-15.2(l). View "Huggins v. Aquilar" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Jed Goldfarb claimed defendant David Solimine reneged on a promise of employment after Goldfarb quit his job to accept the promised position managing the sizeable investment portfolio of defendant’s family. The key issue in this appeal involved whether plaintiff could bring a promissory estoppel claim because he relied on defendant’s promise in quitting his prior employment even though, under New Jersey’s Uniform Securities Law of 1997 (Securities Law or the Act), he could not bring a suit on the employment agreement itself. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined the Securities Law did not bar plaintiff’s promissory estoppel claim for reliance damages. The Court affirmed the liability judgment on that claim and the remanded for a new damages trial in which plaintiff would have the opportunity to prove reliance damages. The Court found he was not entitled to benefit-of-the-bargain damages. To the extent that the Appellate Division relied on an alternative basis for its liability holding -- that a later-adopted federal law “family office” exception had been incorporated into the Securities Law -- the Court rejected that reasoning and voided that portion of the appellate court’s analysis. View "Goldfarb v. Solimine" on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was whether the arbitration provision in the retainer agreement plaintiff Brian Delaney signed when he engaged the representation of Sills Cummis & Gross P.C. was enforceable in light of the fiduciary responsibility that lawyers owe their clients and the professional obligations imposed on attorneys by the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs). In 2015, Delaney, a sophisticated businessman, retained Sills to represent him in a lawsuit. He met with a Sills attorney who presented him with a four-page retainer agreement. It was understood that Trent Dickey was slated to be the attorney primarily responsible for representing Delaney reviewed and signed the retainer agreement in the presence of the Sills attorney without asking any questions. After the representation was terminated, a fee dispute arose and, in August 2016, Sills invoked the JAMS arbitration provision in the retainer agreement. While the arbitration was ongoing, Delaney filed a legal malpractice action against Dickey and the Sills firm. The complaint alleged that Dickey and Sills negligently represented him. The complaint also alleged that the mandatory arbitration provision in the retainer agreement violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and wrongly deprived him of his constitutional right to have a jury decide his legal malpractice action. The trial court held that the retainer agreement’s arbitration provision was valid and enforceable. Additionally, the court determined that Delaney waived his right to trial by jury by agreeing to the unambiguously stated arbitration provision. The Appellate Division disagreed, stressing that Sills should have provided the thirty-three pages of JAMS arbitration rules incorporated into the agreement, that Sills did not explain the costs associated with arbitration, and that the retainer included a fee-shifting provision not permissible under New Jersey law. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that, for an arbitration provision in a retainer agreement to be enforceable, an attorney must generally explain to a client the benefits and disadvantages of arbitrating a prospective dispute between the attorney and client. "Delaney must be allowed to proceed with his malpractice action in the Law Division. We affirm and modify the judgment of the Appellate Division and remand to the Law Division" for further proceedings. View "Delaney v. Dickey" on Justia Law

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Jenny Craig, Inc. hired Marilyn Flanzman to work as a weight maintenance counselor in 1991. In May 2011, Flanzman signed a document entitled “Arbitration Agreement” in connection with her employment. In February 2017, when the dispute that led to this appeal arose, Flanzman was eighty-two years old. Flanzman’s managers informed her that her hours would be reduced from thirty-five to nineteen hours per week. In April 2017, Flanzman’s managers further reduced her hours to approximately thirteen hours per week. In June 2017, they reduced her hours to three hours per week, at which point she left her employment. Flanzman brought suit, asserting claims for age discrimination, constructive discharge, discriminatory discharge, and harassment. Relying on the Agreement, defendants moved to dismiss the complaint and to compel arbitration. Defendants contended that California law governed the Agreement and that the Agreement was enforceable. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss and ordered the parties to arbitrate Flanzman’s claims. It held that California law governed the arbitration and that the proper forum was assumed to be California. Finding no reversible error, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's judgment. View "Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, Inc." on Justia Law

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In 2005, U.S. Home Corporation entered into a contract to purchase two contiguous tracts of land, one of which was owned by West Pleasant-CPGT, Inc. Under the contract, West Pleasant and the other landowner were to gain certain approvals permitting development of the properties. Pursuant to the contract, U.S. Home paid advances to the landowners totaling over $1.5 million. As security for the advances, West Pleasant executed a mortgage and note on its property; the other landowner did not. When a contract dispute arose in 2006, U.S. Home sought to terminate the contract and get a return of its total advance. U.S. Home prevailed in arbitration and was awarded a judgment in the full amount of the advance, plus interest. The Appellate Division affirmed the judgment in 2009. When the judgment was not satisfied, U.S. Home commenced foreclosure actions against the properties. The foreclosure proceedings were stayed when West Pleasant and the other property owner filed for bankruptcy. In West Pleasant’s bankruptcy action, U.S. Home moved to dismiss and for relief from the automatic stay. West Pleasant and U.S. Home executed a Consent Order, in which West Pleasant dismissed its bankruptcy proceeding, waived a fair market valuation and its right to object to a sheriff’s sale of its property, and released U.S. Home from any claims in law or equity. U.S. Home never proceeded with any deficiency action against either landowner. Nonetheless, the landowners commenced the affirmative litigation that gave rise to this appeal, seeking a declaration that the arbitration award was fully satisfied, as well as compensation “in the amount of the excess fair market value of the properties obtained by defendant[] U.S. Home over the amount of its outstanding judgment.” The second property owner then assigned its rights to West Pleasant. After trial, the court valued the second property as worth almost $2.4 million and West Pleasant’s property as worth almost $2 million. The court ordered U.S. Home to pay the fair market value of the West Pleasant property, plus interest, and extinguished the arbitration award on the second property. On appeal, the Appellate Division determined that West Pleasant had waived its right to a fair market valuation on its property but that it was owed a fair market value credit for the second property. The Appellate Division remanded the matter to the trial court for recalculation of damages. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding use of fair market value credit by this debtor to obtain a money judgment against a creditor, in the absence of a deficiency claim threatened or pursued or any objection being raised at the time of the sheriff’s sales, was "inconsistent with sound foreclosure processes and, moreover, inequitable in the circumstances presented." The judgment of the Appellate Division was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "West Pleasant-CPGT, Inc. v. U.S. Home Corporation" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Henry Sanchez filed a class action seeking relief based on the Retail Installment Sales Act, N.J.S.A. 17:16C-1 to -61 (RISA). He contended the “initiation fee” charged in defendant Fitness Factory’s gym membership contract, among other provisions, violated RISA. The trial court dismissed Sanchez’s complaint, finding that RISA did not apply to the contract because it was a contract for services. The Appellate Division affirmed. While acknowledging that RISA applied to some services contracts, the Appellate Division found that RISA applied only to contracts that contained a financing arrangement. The New Jersey Supreme Court determined that by its own terms, RISA applied to services contracts. Further, in the statute as written, there was no requirement that a contract include a financing arrangement to be covered by RISA. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Sanchez v. Fitness Factory Edgewater, LLC" on Justia Law