Justia Contracts Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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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

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Guerline Felix’s vehicle collided with Brian Richards’ vehicle in New Jersey. Richards was insured under a New Jersey automobile insurance policy issued by AAA Mid-Atlantic Insurance Company (AAA). The policy provided bodily injury (BI) liability coverage, as well as uninsured and underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage. Felix was insured by the Government Employee Insurance Company (GEICO) under a policy written in Florida. That policy provided up to $10,000 in property liability and personal injury protection (PIP) benefits, but it did not provide any BI liability. Felix sued Richards for personal injuries, and, in a separate action, Richards sued Felix and AAA for personal injuries. AAA then filed a third-party complaint against GEICO, claiming that GEICO’s policy was automatically deemed to include $15,000/$30,000 in BI coverage and that payment would eliminate the claim for UM/UIM coverage by AAA. The motion court determined that the New Jersey "deemer" statute applied to GEICO’s policy, rejecting the argument that the statute created a carve-out for BI coverage based upon the basic policy, as well as GEICO’s constitutional challenge. The Appellate Division affirmed, and the New Jersey Supreme Court granted the petition for certification filed by GEICO. The Supreme Court concluded after review that the deemer statute did not incorporate by reference the basic policy’s BI level for insurers, like GEICO, to which the second sentence of N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.4 applied. From the perspective of the insurers’ obligation, the required compulsory insurance liability limits remained $15,000/$30,000. As to the equal protection claim, New Jersey insureds were the ones who had a choice to purchase less than the presumptive minimum BI amount. The obligation of in-state insurers to offer and provide that minimum was the same as the obligation imposed under the deemer statute’s second sentence on authorized insurers writing an out-of-state policy. "The equal protection claim therefore falls flat," and the Appellate Division's judgment was affirmed. View "Felix v. Richards" on Justia Law

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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